Abbas foe pulls out of race for presidentJERUSALEM Marwan Barghouti, the prominent Palestinian leader imprisoned in Israel, withdrew from the Palestinian presidential race on Sunday. The move clears the way for Mahmoud Abbas, who now faces no serious challengers in the Jan. 9 vote for leader of the Palestinian Authority.
"Today brother Marwan has decided to stop running as a candidate," Ahmed Ghanem, Barghouti's campaign manager, told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
As the political terrain shifted, the violence between Palestinians and Israelis continued. In the deadliest Palestinian attack in months, at least four Israeli soldiers were killed and eight wounded on Sunday when explosives packed inside a tunnel caused a massive blast beneath a military checkpoint near the border of Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
Before the bombing, one Israeli had been killed in the month since the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, and both Israelis and Palestinians had raised the possibility of renewed dialogue after four years of daily fighting.
The fiery and charismatic Barghouti, 45, posed the only serious threat to Abbas, 69, a former prime minister and longtime associate of Arafat, who died on Nov. 11.
However, both Barghouti and Abbas belong to the dominant Fatah movement, which was founded by Arafat. Fatah leaders and many Palestinians feared that a campaign by Barghouti would have divided the movement as well as the Palestinian public.
Barghouti and Abbas were in a tight race according to opinion polls. The seven other candidates in the race are all in single digits, according to the polls.
Barghouti is widely regarded as one of the leaders of the Palestinian uprising launched four years ago. He was arrested by Israel in 2002 and was convicted in May of involvement in the killings of five Israelis. He has been sentenced to five life terms.
Meanwhile, Abbas on Sunday led the first Palestinian delegation to Kuwait in more than a decade, and he apologized for the backing that the Palestinians gave to Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The visit by Abbas capped a week of fence-mending trips to Arab countries that had extremely tense relations with Arafat.
Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon, countries that had only limited or no dealings with Arafat in recent years, all welcomed Abbas during the past week.
The reasons varied for the friction between the Palestinians and the Arab states, but all have expressed a willingness to work with the new Palestinian leadership that is headed by Abbas. Asked about the Palestinian support for Iraq, Abbas said, "Yes, we apologize for what we have done," The Associated Press reported from Kuwait City.
Last year, during his brief tenure as prime minister, Abbas said that the Palestinian position in 1990 had been a mistake and that he understood why the Kuwaitis were angry.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Arafat sided with the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The move greatly angered Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf nations that had provided large sums of financial support to the Palestinians over the years.
After the U.S.-led coalition drove out the Iraqi forces in 1991, Kuwaitis vented their anger against the many Palestinians living and working in Kuwait. Some Palestinians were beaten up, and most of the more than 400,000 Palestinians in Kuwait were either expelled or pressured to leave.
Arafat, who had worked in Kuwait as a young man, never again visited Kuwait or reclaimed his former stature in the Gulf region. However, as the years passed, the Kuwaitis and other Gulf states did provide some assistance to the Palestinians through pan-Arab and international organizations.
Kuwait's prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said that the dispute with the Palestinians was over. However, a group of Kuwaiti lawmakers said in a statement before Abbas's arrival that they "absolutely reject the visit."
The legislators demanded that the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Abbas now leads, issue "an official apology to the Kuwaiti people for the sin it committed against Kuwait," The Associated Press reported.
As for the violence Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government did not immediately say how it might respond. But tensions have been rising in Gaza and, in the past, Israel has unleashed large-scale military operations following such bombings.
"This was a very large, well-coordinated attack," said Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli military spokesman. "The terrorists are desperate to carry out attacks, and are doing so at important civilian crossings."
Hamas, the Islamic movement that has carried out dozens of bombings, claimed joint responsibility along with the Fatah Hawks. The Fatah Hawks have been around for years, but have not been involved in major attacks recently.
The attackers dug a tunnel and placed more than a ton of explosives inside, beneath the checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers, The Associated Press reported, citing Palestinian militants.
The crossing point is on the Gaza side of the border and is used by Palestinian civilians going to and from Egypt.
The explosives set off two separate blasts a short time apart, and Palestinians in the nearby town of Rafah followed up with a barrage of mortars and automatic rifle fire, Dallal said.