Jailed Fatah leader will be 'kingmaker' in Arafat succession

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The jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, could emerge as a kingmaker in the succession to Yasser Arafat, even if he eventually rejects growing advice to run for the Palestinian presidency himself, his supporters suggested yesterday.

With recent polls showing that, before Mr Arafat's death on Thursday, Mr Barghouti was the second most popular Palestinian politician after him, Mr Barghouti's wife Fadwa yesterday issued a pointed warning that the transitional Palestinian leadership should be "more aware of their need to have Marwan Barghouti standing beside them".

Mrs Barghouti, herself a lawyer and Fatah activist, confirmed at her home here yesterday that her husband was under growing pressure to run for the job, saying: "You only have to spend 24 hours in my house and you will find many people coming here and the phone constantly ringing. Many people are telling me to urge Marwan to stand."

She added that the unsolicited advice was coming from "prominent people in Fatah", as well as people "in other organisations and independents". But any decision on the Fatah choice for President in the elections, promised in two months' time by the Palestinian Authority, was not "for him alone". It would be taken collectively within the organisation, which dominates the PLO, now chaired by former Palestinian prime minister Abu Mazen, another strong possibility.

Fadwa Barghouti said her husband was "studying the situation" and would consult colleagues before taking any view on the election. She implied that Mr Barghouti's support for Abu Mazen when he was briefly Prime Minister last year, had not been fully reciprocated. She said that Palestinian politicians contemplating office should appreciate that, because of his popularity, "the support of Marwan Barghouti is a parameter of the support of the Palestinian people".

In June, Mr Barghouti was sentenced to five life terms in jail for murder after being convicted of involvement in attacks that killed five people. A strong supporter of the Oslo accords and of a two-state solution based on Israel's pre-1967 borders, he also gained credibility with the more militant-inclined wing of Fatah by saying that the Palestinian uprising was justified. His supporters have launched an international campaign for his release.

Israeli officials have strongly rejected earlier speculation that Mr Barghouti might be released in the aftermath of Mr Arafat's death as a possible "partner" for negotiations.

Some diplomats here believe that to further his own candidacy, Abu Mazen or the current Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, who has even less of a popular base, might have to reach some form of deal with Mr Barghouti, perhaps by promising to make him Prime Minister when he is released.

It remains to be seen whether the elections will take place within the tight timetable required by the Palestinian basic law - or whether the US is prepared to apply pressure to Israel to make them easier by relaxing closures, checkpoints and other restrictions during an election campaign. But Mr Qureia insisted yesterday that this was still intended.

Ramallah was mainly quiet yesterday with many people and their families celebrating the festival of Eid, which began at 6am yesterday. But groups of mourners, including a detachment of grey-uniformed men from the Preventative Security Forces, stood and prayed.

Among several younger men visiting the tomb, Mr Barghouti was seen as the most credible successor to Mr Arafat. Although some Palestinian admirers of Mr Barghouti have suggested that to vote for him while he remains in prison would be pointless, Basil Aby Ayshi, 22, said that he and many others would vote for him whether he was in prison or not.