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U.S. Bucks Trend in Reaction to Killing

White House, though 'deeply troubled' by Israeli action, focuses on Yassin's ties to terror.

March 23, 2004|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said Monday they were "deeply troubled" by Israel's assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin but pointedly stopped short of condemning the killing.

A senior State Department official rejected statements made by European leaders and others that the killing, which is expected to bring Palestinian reprisals, spells the end of the Bush administration's long-stalled "road map" for Middle East peace.

"Every time the peace process is declared dead, we keep looking for a way to move forward," the official said. "We're always going to be looking for the way forward -- and there is a way forward."

The U.S. has long argued that the Palestinians can and must do more to stop terrorism in their ranks in order to lay the groundwork for peace.

In stark contrast to the U.S. position, there was a chorus of condemnation from other nations.

"The extrajudicial killing of Sheik Yassin is simply unacceptable and contrary to Israel's international obligations," Canadian Foreign Minister William Graham said. "We condemn this attack, which will only inflame tensions in the region and create yet another obstacle to achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict."

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. had no advance knowledge of the attack on Yassin.

And while U.S. officials described the assassination as "not helpful," they also reiterated Israel's right to self-defense.

"Hamas is a well-known terrorist organization," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "They have carried out atrocious attacks on innocent men, women and children. That is very well known."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met Monday with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Rice to discuss the killing of Yassin.

After his briefing with U.S. officials, Shalom, who was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit, denounced Yassin.

"Sheik Yassin is the godfather of the suicide bombers," he declared.

Although Shalom declined afterward to say what the American officials had told him, he vigorously countered suggestions from reporters that killing Yassin would only trigger more suicide bombings in revenge.

"We think [to] the contrary, it might bring all the leaders of the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the other extremist organizations to realize that they will pay for their crimes, they will pay for the instructions that they are giving to these suicide bombers, and it might bring them to realize that they should abandon this extreme ideology," Shalom said.

In an interview with CNN, Shalom denied that Israel planned to assassinate Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, as Arafat contended Monday.

White House unease in the crisis was apparent. Earlier in the day, Rice in broadcast appearances appealed for calm in the Middle East but offered no U.S. regrets for the killings of Yassin and seven others while describing Hamas as a terrorist organization. Later in the day, both the White House and State Department described the act as "troubling."

By saying the U.S. was troubled yet refusing to denounce Israel, Boucher repeated the U.S. reaction to Israel's failed assassination attempt on Yassin in September.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the United States was more forthright in denouncing Israel's policy of assassinating alleged terrorists, which the Jewish state calls "targeted killings." But since then, U.S. officials have grown unwilling to condemn such assassinations, said Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, a grass-roots Jewish peace group.

"If you talk to people in the administration, they will say they don't feel the U.S. is in a moral position to lecture Israel anymore given that the U.S. is engaged in similar actions ... against Al Qaeda" leaders, Roth said.

The senior State Department official said that explanation was true, but only partially so. A "profound reason" for avoiding tough criticism of Israel is that "we don't have a serious alternative to point to," the official said.

"If we really had the road map [to peace] going or the Palestinians were serious about getting it going," it would be easier to tell the Israelis that assassinations were counterproductive, the official said.

"If they had a real partner [in the peace process], then I think we'd be more in a position to criticize these actions, even though we recognize that this was not thought through, and the potential for creating more terrorism is greater for having done it," the official said.

McClellan called on all sides to avoid further inflaming the situation. He said all parties should "get focused back on the president's two-state vision so that all people in the region, Palestinians and Israelis alike, can realize a better tomorrow."

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.

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