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U.S. To Slash Palestinian Security Funds

The Bush administration will reduce by nearly half a proposed $86 million security assistance package to the Palestinian government to see that none of the money ends up with forces loyal to the radical Hamas movement.

As she prepares to visit the Middle East later this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday she would soon send Congress a revised package that will fund only security elements loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

She did not provide specifics, but a senior U.S. official said the cut would amount to about $36 million, leaving only $50 million of the original package. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about details of the plan, spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I have reformulated the plan," Rice told lawmakers. "It will request less money, precisely because some of the money I would have requested I could not fully account for."

Rice said the revisions would strengthen a "firewall" to keep money away from Hamas, a partner in the new Palestinian unity government established last weekend.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the revised proposal could be ready within days. He said all the assistance would be non-lethal and focused on improving efficiency and professionalism.

The 12 Palestinian security forces are notoriously fractured between factions controlled by Abbas and others by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry. They have unclear, often overlapping roles, poor discipline and have often engaged in deadly street battles.

Some in Congress have questioned the funding plan, saying money could end up with Hamas, which controls most of the Palestinian government but is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, European countries and Israel.

Testifying before a House subcommittee that controls foreign aid, Rice defended the assistance but said the inclusion of Hamas in the government posed a challenge because of its refusal to recognize Israel and reject violence to achieve its aims.

"Frankly, the formation of the Palestinian unity government has provided something of a challenge," she said. "The United States is not prepared to change its assistance policies toward this government because it does not recognize those foundational principles."

Rice said the U.S. remained committed to peace and would carry on contacts with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and other moderates in his administration. She said her trip to the region, starting Friday, would demonstrate that.

"I think it is extremely important to show American commitment to a political horizon so that the Palestinian people can see their future rests with moderate forces like Abu Mazen, not with those forces that are extreme," Rice said.

Rice uses the phrase "political horizon" to refer to the long-range goal of creating a Palestinian state that would coexist with Israel.

"We will not suspend our contacts with those in the Palestinian government who have a record of fighting for peace," she said.

Her comments came a day after a senior U.S. diplomat met the Palestinian finance minister, a moderate, in the first direct U.S. talks with the Palestinian government since its weekend formation.

Israel has said it will not deal with the government and Tuesday's meeting was seen by many as a sign of a rift between Washington and its top Mideast ally.

Also Wednesday, the U.S. and its three partners in Mideast peace efforts — the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — called on all parties to the Palestinian government to commit fully to peace.

"The commitment of the new government ... will be measured not only on the basis of its composition and platform, but also its actions," they said in a statement released two days after the group's last consultation. There was no explanation for the delay.

On the money front, the group as expected endorsed a three-month extension of a system that allows European nations to send money to the Palestinians without benefiting Hamas.

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