CASABLANCA, Morocco – Arab leaders pressured Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday to do more to halt Israel's military sweep in the West Bank in defiance of President Bush's fresh call for a swift pullback. "I meant what I said," the president declared in the United States.
The king of Morocco bluntly told Powell on the first stop of his peacemaking mission that U.S. officials should focus on a withdrawal, saying, "Don't you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?"
In response, Powell demanded "a clear statement from Israel that they are beginning to withdraw" from Palestinian-held territories and "to do it now."
Hours later, the Israeli defense ministry announced troops were preparing to pull back from two West Bank cities, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem, early Tuesday.
"It's a start," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
"I hope this is not a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but a pullback," Powell said, referring to Israel's mixed signals. Still, he called it an encouraging sign. "I hope it's the beginning of further withdrawals," he added.
If Israel should pull back, Powell said, "the operation has entered a new phase" that could help him move ahead in peacemaking.
Powell rejected any suggestion that the Bush administration was giving Sharon more time. "He's not been getting a free ride," he said.
The secretary of state's comments came after he held a critical 2-hour meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose land-for-peace proposal to Israel has been overshadowed by Israel's thrust into the West Bank and by the heated Arab response. Abdullah is scheduled to see Bush at the end of the month at the president's Texas ranch.
Earlier, after meeting the king of Morocco, Powell said he had spoken to Bush and "He is expecting efforts on the part of the Israeli authorities to start bringing this operation to some conclusion."
He said he also had asked the king to counsel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to halt violence against Israelis. The secretary said he hopes to see Arafat later in the week.
Mohammed, the first leader to meet with Powell as the secretary began a trip aimed at halting the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, assured Powell that Morocco will be ready to act on Abdullah's proposal "without any prior conditions" as soon as Israeli troops withdraw from the West Bank and free Arafat from confinement in Ramallah.
In Knoxville, Tenn., Bush said Mideast peace will require leadership by both sides, as Powell was urging Arabs to help him get a cease-fire and start Israel and the Palestinians toward peacemaking.
"The United States is firmly committed to achieving peace," Bush said. "I meant what I said about withdrawal without delay, and I mean what I say when I call upon the Arab world to strongly condemn against terrorist activities."
Also on Monday, special envoy Anthony Zinni met with Sharon and restated demands for an immediate withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.
Powell acknowledged Israel's right to self-defense, adding, "But Israel also has to take into account the implication of its actions."
Mohammed, long viewed as a moderating force in Israeli-Palestinian relations, urged Powell to spare no effort in seeking withdrawal.
When the king asked Powell why he didn't go to Jerusalem first, the secretary responded that "we considered all options" but he wanted to go to Spain Wednesday to meet with European ministers before going to Jerusalem to hold talks with both Israelis and Palestinians.
The Moroccan king, speaking in English during a photo session, told Powell, "I wish you luck, because it is going to be difficult."
Powell nodded his head slightly and acknowledged, "It is going to be difficult."
Jordan's King Abdullah, in an interview with CBS, said Powell must meet with Arafat or "it will show the Palestinian people and the Arab people that there is an unbalanced approach to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue."
King Abdullah said of the Israeli incursions: "If this military action continues I don't think that the Middle East can handle this strain."
Mohammed reminded Powell, who is seeking to swing moderate leaders behind U.S. peacemaking efforts, that Morocco is a member of a committee in charge of activating the peace initiative adopted recently by the Arab League, the royal palace said in a statement.
The palace statement said Mohammed reiterated Morocco's "total condemnation of the deliberate Israeli military invasion" of Palestinian territories and "adamantly denounced the siege imposed on President Arafat and his collaborators."
Local sentiment was typified by an editorial in Liberation, a French-language Moroccan newspaper, that said that until Powell gets to Jerusalem "Sharon's killing machine pursues its awful job."
The king, who maintains one of his many palaces in this southern coastal city, wrote Sharon on March 31, urging him to withdraw his troops from the West Bank. As many as 1 million Moroccans demonstrated against Israel over the weekend in Rabat, the capital.
"We need more responsible statements coming out of Arab capitals," Powell said Sunday before embarking on his mission.
Powell is on a trip to the Middle East and Europe that will include a meeting with Sharon in Jerusalem. Before his statement Monday that he hoped to meet with Arafat, Powell had said there would be such a meeting only "if circumstances permit" -- depending on security, access and the agenda.
Israel has confined Arafat to his compound in Ramallah.
Sharon said in a speech Monday to Israel's Parliament that while his military campaign was limited in time, it would not end until the Palestinian militias had been crushed. He also said he would be willing to meet with Arab leaders to discuss a Mideast peace agreement.