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Allies Step Away From Bush's Arafat Stance

Diplomacy: While the president holds his ground, others at G-8 summit in Canada say leadership issue should be left to Palestinians.


CALGARY, Canada — One by one, the United States' closest allies distanced themselves Wednesday from President Bush's campaign to rid the Palestinians of their current leadership, as uncertainties about the Middle East shadowed the Group of 8 summit conference.

The president made his point anew Wednesday, threatening in a comment to reporters to withhold U.S. financial support for the Palestinian government if it does not clean up corruption.

As the leaders of seven major industrial nations and Russia met in the lodge of a resort in the Rocky Mountains 50 miles west of Calgary, the attention being devoted to the Middle East overtook much of the formal agenda: the still-struggling global economy and the war on terrorism.

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, so often the most reliable of U.S. partners, distanced himself slightly from U.S. policy, while making clear that Palestinians would pay a price if they failed to elect new leaders in elections scheduled for January.

"It's not a question of saying we're going to tell people who they elect or not elect--that's for them," Blair said. "But it's for us to say the consequences of electing people who aren't serious negotiating partners is that we can't move this forward."

As much as Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the summit host, has insisted that he would keep the focus on his limited agenda--particularly aid to Africa, the topic for the closing discussions today--Bush set the public agenda Monday when he said a change in the Palestinian leadership was necessary for peace in the Middle East, a course widely seen as aimed at removing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from power.

Chretien offered the only public statement of support for Bush's position. On Tuesday, as summit participants were arriving, Chretien said Arafat's removal from power "might be a good thing."

But Wednesday, Chretien's top aides backed away from the prime minister's comment, telling journalists here that Canada views Arafat not as a terrorist but as "the leader of the Palestinian people." If new elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, "we would accept the verdict of the Palestinian people," said a senior Canadian official, who asked not to be identified.

And French President Jacques Chirac said, "It is naturally up to the Palestinian people, and to them alone, to choose their representatives."

The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Europe, where many leaders find themselves caught between supporting U.S. policy in the Middle East and being responsive to constituents' concerns over Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Among the apparent side effects of Bush's speech Monday was the last-minute decision of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to not attend the summit. He had been scheduled to take part as a member of a delegation of African leaders who are joining the meetings today.

This summit is perhaps more low-key, more isolated and more heavily protected than any of the 27 that have preceded it.

Barricades across mountain roads are keeping all but officials, security agents and limited numbers of aides far from Kananaskis, the ski village where the Group of 8 is meeting. Among the tall pines and spindly beech trees, a battery of surface-to-air missiles was deployed under camouflage nets near several beaver ponds.

Demonstrators took to the streets in Calgary, carrying out their protests with none of the turmoil that disrupted other summits in recent years. When the G-8 met last July in Genoa, Italy, one demonstrator was killed by police, tear gas filled the city's old streets and the leaders were largely confined to their meeting site.

The G-8 is made up of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.

Meeting beneath 9,000-foot rocky peaks still bearing the winter's snows, the summit leaders focused during their private sessions on economic issues, trade and terrorism, officials said.

"People think that the economy is in a stronger position globally this year than it was when the G-8 met last year," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. Indeed, the U.S. economy is no longer in recession, but Japan's has been stagnant for years and the European economies are struggling to show even anemic growth.

The group reached a broad agreement on a 10-year plan under which the U.S. would contribute $10 billion and the European Union and Japan together another $10 billion to help Russia clean up nuclear weapons sites and secure its remaining nuclear material, a senior Bush administration official said. However, differences over guidelines for keeping track of the money delayed completion of the agreement.

In meetings, Bush defended his decision to impose heightened tariffs on imported steel, another senior aide to the president said. That course has put him at odds with his efforts to reduce such barriers to free trade around the world.

The Sept. 11 attacks introduced terrorism as a central topic on the summit agenda.

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