GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Mahmoud Abbas (search), the temporary successor to Yasser Arafat (search), escaped unharmed Sunday when militants firing assault rifles burst into a mourning tent for the deceased Palestinian leader, killing two security guards and wounding six other people.
The shooting raised grave concerns about a violent power struggle in the post-Arafat era. Some of the gunmen shouted slogans calling Abbas, a moderate who has spoken out against violence, an agent of the United States.
The bursts of gunfire came just hours after Palestinian officials set Jan. 9 as the date for elections to choose a new leader — the first vote in nine years.
The temporary Palestinian leadership, headed by Abbas, has been trying to send a message of unity since Arafat's death Thursday. Arafat's responsibilities were divided among several leaders, and officials held talks with rival factions in Arafat's Fatah (search) movement and the militant opposition groups Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search).
However, those rivalries burst into the open minutes after Abbas, the new PLO chief, entered the Gaza City mourning tent, where some 10,000 people — including about 3,000 armed men, most of them police officers — gathered Sunday evening. Abbas, accompanied by Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan and surrounded by security guards, shook hands with mourners.
Moments later, a group of at least 20 gunmen barged into the tent shouting, "Abbas and Dahlan are agents for the Americans!"
Gunfire then popped through the tent. It appears most of the shots were fired in the air — the casualty toll likely would have been far higher had the gunmen taken aim at the large crowd.
Abbas' bodyguards hustled him into a corner as frightened mourners scrambled over plastic chairs to flee. Abbas was taken to Palestinian headquarters.
The gunmen reportedly melted into the gigantic crowd and escaped arrest.
Speaking to reporters, Abbas tried to play down the incident.
"While we were receiving condolences, a huge crowd gathered there and then random shooting broke out, but not in my direction," he said.
Abbas said he did not hear any slogans against him and planned to continue talks with rival Palestinian factions. Abbas has tried in the past, as prime minister, to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israel.
However, militants signaled Sunday they were not interested in a cease-fire. In a Gaza City parade, masked militants unveiled a new rocket, which they claimed had an extended range that could reach the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. The long, green "Al-Yasser 1" rocket, named after Arafat, was shown to a cheering crowd as Palestinian security looked on.
Sunday's shooting raised questions about the ability of the Palestinians to carry out their election peacefully.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is widely expected to run for Palestinian Authority president. However, victory is far from certain. None of the likely candidates, including Abbas, has the stature of Arafat, and many Palestinians consider Abbas' generation of politicians to be tainted by corruption and out of touch with the masses.
"They realize very clearly that without a popular mandate, they can't make any important decisions," said Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.
Abbas is expected to be a nominee of Arafat's dominant Fatah movement, but not necessarily the only one. He told the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera that Fatah would soon choose a candidate.
Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising who is jailed by Israel, plans to run, according to a person close to him. In recent opinion polls, Barghouti emerged as the most popular politician after Arafat.
Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor and political outsider, said he plans to run as an independent candidate. Qassem, a leading Arafat critic, said his campaign would focus on cleaning up corruption in the Palestinian Authority.
The largest opposition group, Hamas, also is considering whether to field a candidate.
Who emerges as the winner could largely depend on Israel and whether Abbas can produce results during the next two months.
Israeli officials say privately they would like to bolster Abbas, but fear any public embrace of him will weaken his standing.
Palestinian officials called for international pressure on Israel to ease conditions in Palestinian areas to permit the vote to go smoothly. They called for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian population centers and said residents of disputed east Jerusalem must participate.
Israel has barred most residents in east Jerusalem from registering to vote. Many Israelis fear that allowing the city's 228,000 Arab residents to vote in a such a ballot would strengthen Palestinian claims to the city.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled flexibility on the matter Sunday, telling his Cabinet he would not rule out the possibility of allowing east Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, meeting participants said. No decisions were made.
Israeli security sources said on condition of anonymity they were considering turning over security responsibility in Gaza and West Bank cities to Palestinian forces. They gave no details on the timing.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said Washington would like Israel to help ensure that the Palestinian elections go smoothly. Patin declined to say whether the United States was pushing for specific goodwill gestures.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, said he believes President Bush, who kept his distance during his first term, plans to get more involved in the Mideast conflict.
"There was a very powerful, confident expression of his desire to get this done," Blair said Sunday. "You aren't going to get that progress unless we can build democratic institutions on the Palestinian side."