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Israeli Pullback is 'Cosmetic,' says Arafat - 2002-09-29

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has dismissed an Israeli troop pullback from his West Bank headquarters as cosmetic and an attempt to deceive the world. Mr. Arafat says the Israeli military siege against him and his supporters is not over.

Israeli troops completed their withdrawal from the headquarters of Mr. Arafat in Ramallah on Sunday, but they remain stationed close by.

The decision has enraged the Palestinian leader, who accuses Israel of continuing to violate a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to the 10-day siege.

Israeli media report that the move followed pressure from the United States over concerns that the standoff might affect plans to attack Iraq.

Mr. Arafat branded the Israeli troop redeployment a cosmetic movement.

Israeli troops broke into the compound following two Palestinian suicide bombings and destroyed all the buildings except Mr. Arafat's offices.

Israel is demanding the surrender of Palestinian militants, which it says are holed up with Mr. Arafat, along with some 200 other aides and officials.

The soldiers pulled back Sunday to the positions they held before September 20 but have been ordered to stay in the vicinity to capture any of the wanted Palestinians who might try to escape.

Shortly after the decision was announced, Israeli soldiers began removing the barbed wire they had erected around Mr. Arafat's offices.

The troops have been ordered to question anyone leaving the compound and to detain those whose names appear on a list of Israeli army wanted suspects.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told a meeting of the cabinet Sunday that the decision to ease the siege does not mean that the wanted Palestinians inside Mr. Arafat's offices would be allowed to walk free.

At the same time, he said, it was vitally important for Israel to acquiesce to the demands of the United States to end the drama quickly, since America is Israel's most important ally.

He also said Israel should do nothing that might undermine American plans to build international support for a military strike against Iraq.

Mr. Ben-Eliezer said neutralizing the threat of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is also a priority for the Jewish state.