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Qurei concerned US could abandon Mideast 'road map'

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian prime minister expressed concern yesterday that the United States may be moving away from its "road map" to peace for the Middle East.

In an apparent effort to satisfy one of Washington's key demands, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei announced that he was changing the way Palestinian security forces are paid.

A group of US envoys is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon next week to discuss an alternative Israeli plan involving the unilateral withdrawal of troops from some Palestinian areas. Qurei said there are signs the United States may come out in support of the plan.

"What I heard is that they may accept Sharon's plan, and this `may' is irritating and worrying," Qurei told reporters yesterday.

Palestinians fear that the new plan would leave them with far less land than the stalled "road map" plan the United States has championed for months.

The road map seeks to end more than three years of fighting and build a Palestinian state through negotiations.

Under Sharon's plan, Israel would withdraw soldiers and settlers from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and impose a temporary boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

Sharon first announced the plan in December, saying he would put it into action in the coming months if efforts to restart peace talks fail. Neither side has lived up to commitments under the first phase of the road map, initiated in June. However, the Palestinians did announce plans yesterday to satisfy one of Washington's key demands for financial reform.

Following the weekly Cabinet meeting, Qurei said that Palestinian security personnel would now be paid directly into their personal bank accounts. In the past, lump sums of cash were given to commanders who then distributed it to their men -- an invitation to corruption.

"At the end of this month, all the security forces will receive their salaries through the banks," he told reporters.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, all territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said that by discussing the plan with Sharon, visiting US envoys would send the wrong message.

"Doesn't that mean they are abandoning the bilateral negotiations and abandoning the road map? Because the whole idea of unilateral steps means replacing negotiations with dictation," Erekat said in an interview.

US officials have welcomed the idea of dismantling settlements, but are wary of unilateral moves made outside the framework of peace talks.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sharon's pullout from Gaza could help break the impasse, if the Palestinians would respond by cracking down on militants. But he said the United States still needed to better understand the whole plan.

The trio of visiting US envoys -- Elliot Abrams, Stephen Hadley, and William Burns -- will be looking for details on Sharon's ideas. They are to arrive in Israel on Wednesday and will meet with Sharon the following day, Israel Radio reported.

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