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Jailed Palestinian leader may run to succeed Arafat

Barghouti seen as great unifier

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising jailed by Israel but perhaps the strongest candidate to oust Yasser Arafat's old guard of politicians, plans to run in upcoming presidential elections, a person close to Barghouti said yesterday.

The candidacy of Barghouti, who supports violence but says he wants peace with Israel, could shake up the calcified world of Palestinian politics. By law, elections are to be held by Jan. 9, or within 60 days of Arafat's death.

Many believe the popular Barghouti is the only leader capable of unifying squabbling Palestinian factions, reining in militants, and possibly restarting peace efforts with Israel.

But Israel, however, is determined not to free Barghouti, who is serving multiple life terms for his role in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk.

Barghouti also could represent the best hope for Arafat's Fatah movement to beat down a challenge by the increasingly popular Islamic militant group Hamas, which is considering running a candidate.

"When he takes that decision [to run], we will be near him and we will support him," said Ahmed Ghneim, a senior Fatah leader and another member of the younger guard. "I think he has the best chances of anybody in the movement to win the elections."

Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, said she was unaware of her husband's plans. But his brother Hisham said: "His people around him, from the Fatah and Tanzim [Fatah rank-and-file], want him. And if they want him, he is looking to be president."

After Arafat's death, Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was sworn in as the caretaker leader of the Palestinian Authority.

Although some officials have discussed amending the law to allow Parliament to choose a leader, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said yesterday that elections would be held by Jan. 9. Fattouh was to meet today with elections officials to decide whether to hold the poll Jan. 7 or Jan. 9, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.

Ammar Dweik, deputy chairman of the Palestinian election commission, said the Palestinians are ready to hold their first presidential election since 1996, noting that a voter registration drive was recently completed.

Rami Hamdallah, chairman of the Palestinian election committee, urged the international community to pressure Israel to allow the elections to go smoothly, especially in disputed east Jerusalem. Israeli police raided registration stations several months ago, preventing most east Jerusalem residents from registering. A senior Israeli official said on condition of anonymity that Israel had not been formally contacted about the matter.

Another question is whether Hamas will field a candidate. Osama Hamdan, a Hamas leader in Beirut, said the group is deliberating whether to run a candidate. A senior Hamas official in Gaza, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group's leaders would meet soon and were considering the issue seriously.

Arafat's death raised speculation that Israel might release Barghouti as a good-will gesture, but Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel ruled that out. "He will remain in prison for the rest of his life because he's a murderer, because he's responsible for the killing of so many" innocent people, Shalom said Thursday.

Barghouti intends to run regardless and will bow out of the race only if Fatah holds primaries and he loses, the person close to Barghouti said on condition of anonymity. Erekat said the Fatah candidate is likely to be chosen by the movement's small central committee and not in a primary.

The committee probably would nominate Mahmoud Abbas, an old-guard politician who has taken over Arafat's role as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is hardly certain whether Abbas could defeat a Hamas candidate.

Many Palestinians see Abbas's generation of politicians, many of whom spent decades in exile, as a corrupt clique with little connection to the Palestinian masses.

Younger leaders who cut their teeth during the first Palestinian uprising in the 1980s and early '90s have more grass-roots support but have been frozen out of top positions in Fatah, the PLO, and the Palestinian Cabinet.

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