House Democrat Holds Up Palestinian Aid

A House committee chairwoman said Friday she is holding up $86 million in U.S. aid for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at a time when the Bush administration is trying to strengthen him in hopes of enhancing prospects for Mideast peace.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., head of the House panel that oversees foreign aid spending, said she wants a better understanding of the new political landscape in the Middle East and details on how the money will be used.

The Bush administration had asked Congress for the money to aid security forces loyal to Abbas, who leads the secular Fatah party. For more than a year, he has been locked in conflict with Islamic militants from Hamas, who control most of the Palestinian government and are considered a terrorist group by the United States and others.

The request was complicated after Abbas brokered a deal with Hamas this month to form a unified government. Hamas has said it will "respect" previous Palestinian peace deals with Israel, but has yet to say it will renounce violence or recognize the Jewish state.

"I've had some really serious questions that have yet to be answered" about the aid, Lowey said Friday at a hearing of her House Appropriations subcommittee. She said she has been concerned about the aid since December.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who testified at the hearing, has said she will reserve judgment until the coalition government is formed and its policies clear. She left Friday for the Middle East on a trip that includes a joint meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The planned coalition government is Abbas' attempt to end a political standoff with Hamas that has lasted more than a year, and stop street fighting between the two factions that has killed more than 130 Palestinians since May.