Arafat is not a terrorist, says Bush, but he should do more to stop them

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George Bush made clear yesterday he did not consider Yasser Arafat a terrorist, although he believed the Palestinian leader could do more to prevent the wave of suicide bombings.

After several days of stern criticism of the Palestinian leader, President Bush said the so-called "Bush Doctrine" – those who harbour terrorists should be considered terrorists – did not apply to the position in the Middle East.

"Chairman Arafat has agreed to a peace process," the President said, when asked by reporters to explain the apparent exemption. "He has agreed to the Tenet plan, he has agreed to the Mitchell plan. He has negotiated with parties on how to achieve peace."

Earlier his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: "When you talk about the Palestinian Authority and you talk about Israel, you have parties that are committed to a peace process. They have been in the past, the President believes they still can be."

Mr Bush's comments appeared to represent an important shift – at the very least in their tone – from those made in recent days when America had repeatedly called the Palestinian leader to do more to prevent the suicide bombings and it supported Israel's right to defend itself with military action.

America had stood almost alone amid a welter of international criticism of the decision of Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, to lay siege to Mr Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. Yesterday, Mr Bush said he still backed Mr Sharon's right to defend his country but he had to keep open a "pathway for peace". Mr Bush said: "We urge the parties to accept the [peace plan drafted by the CIA director, George Tenet] so we can bring some peaceful resolution to something disrupting the lives of Palestinians and Israelis."

Mr Bush comments came as Islamic countries meeting to discuss terrorism yesterday were split over whether to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists. They were, however, united in condemning Israel's widening offensive into Palestinian territory.

Delegates to a special meeting of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference passed a unanimous resolution accusing Israel of "dragging the region toward an all-out war" and called for UN sanctions to deter Israel.

Fault lines had appeared early in the conference when the Palestinian representative disagreed with Mahathir Moham-ed, Malaysia's Prime Minister, who said suicide bombers killing Israeli civilians should be regarded as terrorists.