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U.S. preparing Abbas guard to take on Hamas

By Aluf Benn and Avi Issacharoff,

The Bush administration has undertaken efforts to arm and train the Presidential Guard of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in order to prepare it for a potential violent confrontation with Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip.

According to information received in Jerusalem, the American security coordinator in the territories, General Keith Dayton, appeared before representatives of the Quartet in London last week and presented them with a program for bolstering the Palestinian presidential guard. The program calls for Egyptian, British and perhaps even Jordanian instructors to train the force loyal to Abbas.

However, Palestinian sources say that the training of a `Special Presidential Guard` started already a month ago, under the guidance of an American military instructor.

The training is taking place in Jericho, at a compound near the InterContinental Hotel, and involves men from Force 17, an elite Fatah force traditionally assigned the protection of the Palestinian Authority Chairman.

According to reports, 400 Force 17 troops have been involved in the training since August.

The Palestinian Authority Chairman`s office has recently barred the access of reporters to the compound.

Palestinian sources say that the training program is part of Dayton`s recommended initiative for the reinforcement of Abbas` forces, and which involves the transfer of $2 million to set up the necessary training

According to foreign press reports, the United States would like to see the number of men in Force 17 grow from approximately 3,500 to 6,000. Conscripts in the force range from 18 to 22, and undergo basic training for three months. Some are then selected for the Presidential Guard.

In the past, Dayton had proposed that the Presidential Guard, bolstered by international inspectors, be deployed at the Karni crossing in the northern Gaza Strip in order to expand the transit of goods between Gaza and Israel.

Israeli sources say that the United States is interested in the fall of the Hamas government currently in power in the Palestinian Authority.

During the Quartet meeting in London, the Americans expressed their satisfaction with the results of the boycott of Hamas` government, which has undermined its standing among the Palestinians.

However, the U.S. administration is also certain that the sanctions against Hamas will inevitably result in a violent confrontation between Hamas and Fatah, and in such a scenario, they would prefer to strengthen the `good guys` headed by Abbas.

It is unclear whether the European and Russian representatives of the Quartet support this position.

Senior administration officials David Welch and Elliott Abrams, who participated in the Quartet meeting, will arrive here Monday as part of preparations for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert`s visit to Washington in two weeks.

Olmert is scheduled to depart for the U.S. on November 12, and will meet that same evening with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, in anticipation of a meeting with President George W. Bush the following day.

Olmert will also meet with Vice President Dick Cheney. He will then depart for Los Angeles, where he will address the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities of North America.

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