TULKARM, West Bank The United States plans to expand a program to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's security forces in the occupied West Bank, the general in charge of training and equipping them said Monday.
"We have plans to train at least three more battalions before this time next year," Lieutenant General Keith Dayton told Reuters. Each battalion has about 500 members.
"If it goes the way the administration has asked for, we will accelerate dramatically what we are doing here in terms of training and equipment, and filling in the gaps in between," Dayton said during a visit to a security headquarters in the West Bank city of Tulkarm.
Training of the three additional Palestinian battalions would start this summer, provided the U.S. Congress approves the funding requested by President Barack Obama, Dayton said.
U.S.-funded training is conducted by Jordanian police at a base outside Amman. The United States provides non-lethal equipment like vehicles. Arms are supplied by Arab states.
The program also includes funding to construct bases for Abbas's newly-trained forces.
Last month, U.S. and Western officials said the Obama administration planned to boost support for the Dayton program by up to 70 percent, from $75 million in fiscal year 2008 to as much as $130 million.
Dayton declined to give the exact amount but he said there would be "more financial support than we have ever had before."
Israel has given tentative backing to the program as a test of Abbas's ability to rein in militants, one of its main conditions in stalled U.S.-backed negotiations over establishing a Palestinian state.
Hamas Islamists, shunned by the United States and other Western powers for refusing to recognize Israel and renounce violence, have denounced Abbas's forces as collaborators and say the program has fueled inter-Palestinian tensions.
While the security program has bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, it could run into opposition if Egyptian-backed reconciliation talks between Hamas and Abbas's secular Fatah faction result in another unity government.
Those talks resumed in Cairo Monday.
Hamas won a 2006 election and receives support from Iran and other Islamist allies. It forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after routing Abbas's forces there, bringing an end to a previous unity deal opposed by Washington.
Some 1,600 members of Abbas's National Security Force and Presidential Guard have undergone U.S.-funded training since January 2008. Many of them have been deployed in major West Bank cities, including Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem and parts of Hebron.
Addressing a battalion in Tulkarm that recently finished training in Jordan, Dayton said: "As I look at you, I couldn't be more proud of the fact that you stepped up to be the founders of a Palestinian state."
(For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)
(Editing by Robert Woodward)