The Pentagon said Thursday it had told Israel and Egypt that the administration of President Bush wanted to withdraw at least some U.S. military peacekeepers from the Sinai peninsula in its effort to cut non-combat missions worldwide.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised withdrawing the 860 U.S. troops serving in a 1,900-member multinational peacekeeping force during recent Washington meetings with President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. There has been no official Egyptian reaction to the proposal.
Rumsfeld Friday said that the administration's desire to withdraw U.S. troops from the Sinai force does not reflect an effort to distance the United States from the Middle East.
"If the American soldiers are withdrawn it will be a critical situation and some extremists here or there (Egypt or Israel) can do something to push the situation to a very critical point," said Emad Gad, an analyst at the state-run al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
"There is no problem to withdraw them, but not in the current situation," he said.
Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv in November accusing Israel of using excessive force against Palestinians.
Four Egyptians have been injured by stray cross-border fire in Rafah since the uprising began. Egypt maintains strict security measures in Sinai, now a popular tourist destination for Israelis, Egyptians and other nationals.
Adel Hammouda, editor of the independent Sawt al-Umma weekly, said the U.S. move brought to mind the withdrawal of international monitors from the Sinai area in 1967.
The decision, ordered by then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was part of a chain of events leading to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Through a spokesman, Rumsfeld took issue with Raanan Gissin, an aide to Sharon, who commented Thursday on news reports that Rumsfeld had sounded out Sharon last month about a possible U.S. withdrawal from the Sinai.
"This was part of the U.S. policy of trying to put a distance between themselves and the Middle East," Gissin said.
A Rumsfeld spokesman, Navy Capt. Tim Taylor, said the defense secretary takes issue with that interpretation.
"It has nothing to do with" distancing the United States from the Middle East, Taylor said.
"On the other hand, we have made commitments. We won't walk away from our commitments," he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, for instance, assured the NATO foreign ministers at their annual winter meeting in Brussels, Belgium, last month that U.S. peacekeeping troops would remain in the Balkans. Still, several hundred are being withdrawn, and there may be further pullouts as the allies assess conditions in the region.
"There are no decisions on this," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday. He said Rumsfeld has been "discussing various deployments with Secretary Powell and others within the administration. They talk about these things," Boucher said.
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