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Sen. Clinton's star power attracts 5,000 to Tufts

MEDFORD -- Hillary Clinton didn't exactly announce her candidacy for president last night in a speech at Tufts University. But just a hint of her ambitions in 2008 sparked applause and laughter from a crowd of 5,000, when Clinton praised the Afghan woman who recently ran for president.

''A remarkable feat considering the history," Clinton said of Massouda Jalal, 41, as the crowd erupted. ''One that put Afghanistan's women ahead of America's women."

In a speech about Middle East politics, the New York senator said she had hoped to discuss ''President Kerry's" new hope for the volatile region.

But the crowd that had stretched a city block and waited in icy air to hear her speak was more interested in Clinton's star power and the possibility she would run in four years than in her comments on Kerry's loss or Middle East politics.

Students repeatedly showered Clinton with applause before she spoke her first word. And Lawrence S. Bacow, the Tufts president, drew another round when he praised Clinton for attracting 300 more spectators than her husband did during his visit two years ago.

Issam M. Fares, the deputy prime minister of Lebanon and the event's sponsor, said he does not interfere in US domestic politics.

But, Fares said in an interview, participants in his annual lecture frequently add to their global credentials.

''This has been a good omen," he said, referring to Colin L. Powell, who lectured at Tufts just months before being appointed secretary of state. ''When they come here, they do go somewhere."

Clinton made no direct references to a possible presidential run, but her hour-long speech sought to display her foreign policy credentials, pushing for Turkey's admission to the European Union, warning of Iran's nuclear ambitions, and casting doubt on the potential value of the fighting in Fallujah, Iraq.

For Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died in Paris later last night, Clinton had no kind words.

Before Arafat died in a French hospital, Clinton assailed the 75-year-old, who many say squandered her husband's legacy when he failed to sign a peace agreement with Israel during the waning moments of President Clinton's presidency.

''Yasser Arafat could not make the transition from guerrilla leader to national leader," Hillary Clinton said. ''At the end of the day, Mr. Arafat was unwilling or unable to take that leap of faith."

Clinton said Arafat's widely expected death offers an opportunity for renewed negotiations in the Middle East and for Palestinians to rein in terrorist groups and organize a free election.

She also criticized President Bush for what she called ''disengagement" from the conflict.

''We withdrew from engagement at the beginning of the Bush administration," Clinton said.

Her remarks about Arafat stood out in an otherwise cautious speech, said James M. Glaser, a political science professor at Tufts.

''I was surprised, given that he [was] on his deathbed," Glaser said.

In discussing Arafat, Clinton echoed the views of her husband, who also used his speech at Tufts to blame the longtime Palestinian leader for choosing a bloody uprising over a peace agreement.

That decision, ending the Camp David negotiations, cost Clinton an enduring foreign policy achievement.

''That was going to be one of Clinton's great legacies, and it got spoiled," Glaser said.

Senator Clinton also took aim at Bush, saying that many of his predecessors had negotiated with the Soviet Union, yet he insists on isolating North Korea and Iran.

She argued that the United States should join European countries in talks to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program.

Iran, Clinton said, sponsors terrorism, is seeking nuclear weapons, and ''resembles the place many people in the administration believed Iraq was."

''This time," she added, ''the weapons of mass destruction and the threats they pose are very real."

Clinton spoke as part of an annual lecture series at Tufts funded by Fares, a former trustee and a major donor.

Benjamin Gedan can be reached at gedan@globe.com.

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