'Quartet' Meets on Mideast Peace Plan

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Progress in Middle East peacemaking depends upon having Palestinian leaders who will crack down on groups such as Hamas (search), Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday as he met with U.S. partners in the peace process to assess progress on their "road map" peace plan.

In addition to a Palestinian crackdown on terror, Powell and officials representing the United Nations, the European Union and Russia urged Israel to avoid killing civilians in its military operations in Palestinian territories.

The four, known as the Quartet, met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly (search) at a time of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that has halted implementation of the plan and thrown into doubt its promise of peace.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) urged both sides to act boldly to get the process moving.

"Obviously the process ... is in a bit of a distress, but it's the only option we have," Annan said in a news conference. "We are going to press the parties to honor their commitments on the road map."

Powell said the four drafters of the "road map" will be "continuously frustrated" unless the Palestinians find a leader who will crack down on Hamas and other such groups.

"That road map is still valid, and we are now waiting to see whether or not the Palestinian people are able to put in place, through their own system, a prime minister who will enjoy political authority and control over all the security forces so that we can start moving again down the path laid out," Powell said.

The Quartet said such a government, with strong authority and the political will to crack down on militants, is necessary for progress. The officials also urged Israel to reciprocate by resuming security cooperation, easing restrictions on Palestinian travel, halting settlement activity and "exerting maximum efforts to avoid civilian casualties."

The Palestinian prime minister-designate, Ahmed Qureia, is trying to form a Cabinet and has indicated it could be seated as early as next week. He has said he would try to remove illegal weapons from Palestinian areas but has not promised to disarm militant groups as required by the Quartet's "road map."

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Friday, after meeting with Powell, that the Americans were waiting for a new Palestinian government that is empowered and committed to the plan.

"I assured him that is happening and President (Yasser) Arafat is playing a very constructive role in making it happen as soon as possible," Shaath told reporters.

The "road map" is designed to point Israel and the Palestinians to an accord that would include establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005 to live side-by-side with Israel. The process has been derailed by continuing violence, with Palestinian homicide bombers killing Israelis and the Israeli military going after Palestinian militants, often shedding civilian blood in the process.

The Quartet meeting brought Powell and Annan together with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov; Javier Solana, the top EU diplomat; EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten; and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, current head of the European Union under its revolving chairmanship system.

The four parties, which officially released the "road map" on April 30, said they will meet again by the end of the year for another assessment of progress.

The Quartet statement condemned Palestinian homicide bombings against Israelis and said the Palestinian Authority (search) must ensure that its security forces "begin sustained, targeted and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure."

It called for "decisive steps" against militants conducting and planning attacks.

The Quartet statement also indirectly urged Israel to stop building a 370-mile-long security barrier to keep West Bank Palestinians out of Israel. Its members "note with great concern" the actual and proposed route of the barrier, which "undermines Palestinians' trust in the road map process."

"The government of Israel must take no action undermining trust," it added.

Israel says the fence is needed to keep out homicide bombers.