Blair backs gamble on elections by Palestinian leader

PM seeks to revive faltering Middle East peace process, but bid to outflank Hamas could worsen bloody power struggle
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Tony Blair last night urged international support for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who announced a gamble on early elections to break a deadlock with Hamas. The Prime Minister, who is on a peace drive in the Middle East, said in Cairo that it was the duty of world leaders to back Mr Abbas.

"This is the moment for the international community to come behind him, to help build his authority and his capability, to deliver improvements in the living standards of Palestinian people but also in the progress that we all want to see on resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue," Mr Blair said after talks with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. "Hamas at the present time is not prepared to be constructive."

But the Palestinian leader is taking a high risk. His announcement that he would call new presidential and parliamentary elections could make worse the already volatile power struggle between his own Fatah faction and Hamas. Within hours, gunmen from the two groups clashed in southern Gaza.

Mr Abbas's gamble - designed to secure a government which can lift the 10-month international and Israeli blockade that followed Hamas's election last January - was immediately condemned by Hamas as an illegal "coup" to bring down a legitimately elected government.

Mr Abbas blamed Hamas for the collapse of coalition talks, and said Fatah was no longer interested in sharing power with Hamas, a theme echoed by Mr Blair. But he did not set a date, saying merely that the elections should take place "as soon as possible".

The Prime Minister hopes to help resuscitate the Middle East peace process before he leaves office, believing that this would contribute to finding a solution in Iraq, which threatens to tarnish his legacy. But Mohamed el-Sayed, deputy director of al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank, said Mr Blair had no credibility in the Middle East after taking part in the invasion of Iraq, and failing to persuade the US to work for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Yesterday the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, opened "national reconciliation" talks in Baghdad which have been billed as a possible route to ending the bloodshed. In a gesture to disaffected Sunni Muslims, he said army officers expelled as Baathists after Saddam Hussein's fall were welcome to return, but Sunni leaders have dismissed this weekend's conference as a PR ploy.

With the number of US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq expected to rise above 25,000 before the end of the year, the US is preparing desperate political and military moves to stave off defeat. Mr Maliki is under American pressure to reform his government by severing his links with the nationalist Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and allying himself with supposedly moderate political leaders who have close links to the US.

At the same time, President George Bush is considering sending between 20,000 and 35,000 extra soldiers as reinforcements for the 140,000 US troops already in Iraq to try regain control of Baghdad and insurgent Sunni provinces.

But both the political and military initiatives being considered are fraught with danger. Even 10 extra US combat brigades, the number envisaged by the hawkish Republican senator John McCain during a recent visit to Iraq, would be unlikely to do more than expand the limited islands of US control. An American military offensive to try to control Baghdad this summer petered out without any gains on the ground.

A sign of greater US belligerence may be the appointment of Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno as the new US commander in Iraq. During a previous stint, General Odierno won a reputation for Vietnam-style "search and destroy" operations in which many local farmers were killed and innocent onlookers imprisoned. The heavy losses among civilians provoked a powerful reaction in favour of the Sunnis, and has been cited by some US officers as an example of how not to conduct counter-insurgency operations.