US demands Israeli military withdrawal

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America is putting unusual pressure on Israel to secure a halt to the violence in the Middle East, with even President Bush, the head of perhaps the most pro-Israeli administration of recent times, singling out Ariel Sharon as responsible for the current carnage.

Reinforcing Mr Bush's message, the State Department yesterday insisted on a "complete withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas", including Ramallah and other areas recently entered by the Israeli army.

Following Mr Bush's remark that the offensive in Ramallah and Gaza was "not helpful", it was reported yesterday that his administration had placed a hold on part of a financial request by Israel, which gets $3bn of US aid a year.

The move is a sign of White House exasperation with Mr Sharon's tactics. Not only do they threaten the latest peacemaking bid by Anthony Zinni, Mr Bush's Middle East envoy, but they also complicate Vice President Dick Cheney's current tour of the region to drum up Arab support for a new US attack on Iraq.

In another sign of the mounting unease here, even the unswervingly pro-Israeli New York Times rebuked Mr Sharon for the "unacceptable" severity of his clampdown, saying that it was "utterly counterproductive" and undermined the Jewish state's own interests.

But for all the criticism, there is no sign it represents a real change in the US position beyond a desire to give General Zinni some elbow room in his search for a truce. Neither the Times nor any US official in public has mentioned the settlements on land occupied after the 1967 war, the issue at the core of the dispute.

In another sign of where American sympathies may ultimately lie, some 230 Congressmen have written to Mr Bush demanding that three groups linked to the Palestinian Authority, including Yasser Arafat's own security forces, be included on the State Department's list of terrorist organisations. Groups named on the list have their assets in the US frozen, and their members are denied entry visas.

The Congressmen have cited the al-Aqsa brigade, which has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings; the Tanzim wing of Fatah, the PLO faction controlled by Mr Arafat; and Force 17, his presidential security organisation. The letter insists that Mr Arafat be held responsible for attacks by Palestinian militants.