U.S. to vet Abbas's forces before training begins
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard eligible for U.S.-funded training and equipment will be screened in advance for militant ties, U.S. documents showed on Wednesday.
The Bush administration is trying to allay concerns raised by some U.S. lawmakers and Israeli officials that a portion of the $59.4 million program for the presidential guard could inadvertently benefit militants from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to Abbas's Fatah faction, or Hamas.
The groups are considered "terrorist organizations" by the United States and Israel.
Under the program, the United States will provide $14.5 million for "basic and advanced training" for the presidential guard and $23 million for non-lethal equipment.
Another $2.9 million in U.S. funds will be used to upgrade the presidential guard's training facilities, including a sprawling new base being build in Jericho, in the occupied West Bank.
A U.S. government document, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said members of the presidential guard will undergo a series of local background checks before receiving any U.S.-funded training.
Their names also will be run through terrorism databases maintained by the FBI and the State Department.
In addition, Israel will be able to screen individual trainees before they are allowed to travel to Jordan for U.S.-funded training.
A Western diplomat close to the U.S. program said the screening process would create a "firewall against any terrorists becoming part of this program".
But it was unclear whether the safeguards would satisfy U.S. lawmakers and Israelis.
Presidential guard recruits already undergo screenings by local commanders. Some recruits have been dropped or moved to other branches, either because they are affiliated with non-Fatah groups or their family members are, Palestinian sources say.
The Israeli army has raised objections in the past to U.S. plans to equip the presidential guard with more advanced body armor and other battle gear.
The $59.4 million security program was scaled back from an initial $86.4 million after Abbas agreed to form a unity government with Hamas Islamists.
Less than two weeks old, the new government is already showing signs of internal strain.
Factional fighting has flared up in Gaza and Abbas's appointment of one of Hamas's long-time foes, Mohammad Dahlan, as national security adviser, has stoked tensions.
The U.S. security program includes $3 million for Dahlan's office.