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US, Jordan Seek Details of Sharon Plan for Gaza Withdrawal

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Jordanian counterpart, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, said on Tuesday that there are still many unanswered questions about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans for a pullout from Gaza. It was announced that a senior U.S. diplomatic team is leaving for Israel Wednesday to pursue the issue further.

Neither the secretary of state, nor Mr. Muasher are dismissing the Sharon proposals out of hand, especially the notion of an evacuation of most Israeli settlements from Gaza.

But in a talk with reporters after their meeting here, both said more consultations are needed with Israel, before it can be determined if the Sharon ideas would advance, or side-track, the international "road map," which has been the basis of U.S. Middle East diplomacy.

Mr. Powell said the United States has a number of concerns, including, he suggested, the prospect of a security vacuum in Gaza, if the Palestinian Authority were not ready to or capable of controlling the area.

"After the withdrawal of the settlements and the Israeli forces, what will be the arrangement in Gaza? Will the Palestinian Authority be prepared for the task of managing the region? So, there are as lot of questions of this nature," he said.

Mr. Muasher, for his part, questioned aloud whether Mr. Sharon's ideas for "disengagement" from the Palestinians are intended to complement, or replace, the road map.

"It's important to know whether this will be a full withdrawal from Gaza, or not, whether this will be in connection with other withdrawals from the settlements in the West Bank, whether this is going to be done in the context of the 'road map,' or a replacement to it," he said. "There are many questions that need to be answered, here, and, I think, if they are answered in a proper way, that we are going to have an opportunity to finally move the 'road map' forward."

A senior U.S. diplomat said a high-level team of U.S. officials will leave for Israel Wednesday for more talks with Mr. Sharon on the disengagement plan.

The group includes Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns, White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams and Deputy White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

The same trio of U.S. officials visited Israel on a similar mission three weeks ago, and Mr. Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, met senior officials at the White House last week as part of an intensifying consultation process.

The secretary's meeting with the Jordanian foreign minister also dealt with the Bush administration's initiative for democratic reform in the Middle East, which has drawn a mixed reaction from Arab governments, several of which have said that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts should come first.

Mr. Muasher said the Arab states are not using the stalled peace process "as an excuse," but he said the reform process would be "aided to a great extent" by serious attention to, and resolution of, the conflict. Secretary Powell, for his part, reaffirmed the United States is not trying to impose reform on the region, and that such an attempt, in any case, "wouldn't work."