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Sharon Defends Siege on Arafat Headquarters

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defends the siege of the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and accuses the Palestinians of trying to escalate violence ahead of a possible American attack on Iraq.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post newspaper, Mr. Sharon defended the week-long siege and accused Yasser Arafat of harboring some of the "biggest terrorists that exist" inside his headquarters.

Israeli troops encircled the compound last Thursday and then demolished almost all the buildings inside. The siege has isolated the Palestinian leader and about 200 of his men inside the one building left intact. Israel insists that some of those men are wanted for involvement in terrorist attacks and must give themselves up before the siege can end. So far Israel has not made public a list of names of the wanted men and Mr. Arafat is refusing to surrender any of them.

Israel has come under growing criticism for the action, even from its main ally, the United States. President Bush called the operation "unhelpful," and at the United Nations the United States, by not using its veto power, enabled the Security Council to approve a resolution demanding that Israel end the siege. The resolution also calls on the Palestinian Authority to end terrorist attacks and bring those responsible to justice.

Mr. Sharon sought to down play American criticism, describing it as a "disagreement among good friends." The prime minister also accused the Palestinians of trying to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States ahead of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq.

Mr. Sharon argues that the Palestinians want to escalate the violence, believing that Israel will be less likely to respond for fear of heightening tension in the region, just when Washington is trying to calm the situation and seek Arab acquiescence for military action against Baghdad.

Mr. Sharon has also come in for some harsh domestic criticism for the siege. Israeli television quotes some senior military officers as saying Mr. Sharon was looking for "quick action" despite reservations expressed by some officers about the operation. Other critics have said that by ordering the siege Mr. Sharon has actually helped boost the popularity of Yasser Arafat among Palestinians and may have hampered political reform efforts within the Palestinian Authority.