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US Hopeful Following Latest Israel-Palestinian Agreement - 2003-06-27

The United States is welcoming the agreement-in-principle between Israel and the Palestinians on an Israeli troop pullback in Gaza. U.S. officials are also guardedly-optimistic about the prospect of a cease-fire agreement by radical Palestinian factions, though they say armed militant groups will eventually have to be dismantled.

The agreement on the Gaza pullback, hammered out by Israeli and Palestinian security officials, is the first tangible step by the sides to fulfill commitments made to President Bush at the Aqaba summit earlier this month.

The accord was applauded by the White House. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said it is crucial that the sides implement the agreement and build on it with other steps called for in the international "road map" to peace.

In comments to reporters here after a meeting with the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, Secretary of State Colin Powell called it a very positive development, one that he hopes will be quickly followed by among other things a similar security arrangement for the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

"It is an early step. A lot more has to happen in the days ahead to make sure that this opportunity is not lost," he said. "And this is the beginning of a long process that we hope will lead to creation of a Palestinian state that will live side-by-side in peace with Israel in accordance with the vision laid out by the president in his speech of the 24th of June last year, also reflected by the Arab League in their declaration last year, and also reflected in the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh summits."

Mr. Powell said word of an impending three-month cease-fire by Palestinian militants is also a sign that trends in the area "are moving in the right direction." But his spokesman Richard Boucher stressed that any truce needs to be followed by the dismantling of the factions involved in terror attacks. Mr. Boucher pointed out that the envisaged Palestinian state can only have a single armed authority and must not have to contend with other armed groups.

"This process has to lead, for them and for us, down the road to the dismantling," he said. "So we see a comprehensive cessation of violence and terror as a welcome development. But it's not an end in itself. It needs to be the first step toward fulfillment of that larger goal: a complete end to violence and terror, achieving rule of law over all Palestinian areas and the dismantling of terrorist capacities of all groups engaged in violence as Prime Minister Abbas has called for."

The developments came on the eve of a Middle East mission by White House National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is due to begin talks Sunday with Israeli and Palestinian officials on ways to further advance peace efforts.

Top U.S. Middle East officials, including Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, special envoy John Wolf and White House Middle East staff director Elliot Abrams are already in the area working to set up a U.S. monitoring team to help the parties implement the "road map."