U.S. Sees Arafat as Blocking Peace

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The State Department Tuesday had no immediate information that Palestinian Yasser Arafat had died. A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no confirmation that Arafat had passed away, but that Arafat is clearly in grave condition.

An adviser said Tuesday that Arafat was near death.

"It's only a matter of hours," Edward Abington, formerly the U.S. consular in Jerusalem, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Ramallah, where Arafat make his headquarters on the West Bank.

Abington said Arafat was in a deep coma and is near death. He said his information came from the Palestinian delegation in Paris. Only Ahmed Qureia (search), the prime minister, was permitted to see him by French doctors at the hospital because of his grave condition, Abington said.

Over the past several days, there have been frequently conflicting reports about the state of Arafat's health. Arafat's wife, Suha, has barred even Arafat's closest aides from seeing him.

On Monday, the French medical team treating Arafat publicly acknowledged that he was in a coma.

Arafat's passing could remove a hurdle to U.S. diplomatic efforts to promote peacemaking between the Palestinians and Israel.

Last week, the newly reelected President Bush offered public assurances of his unwavering support for establishing a Palestinian state.

Bush, from the outset, shunned Arafat, declining to invite him to the White House, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) declared he had no "partner" for negotiations.

But the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia devised a so-called road map to chart a course for negotiations.

It has made little headway, although Sharon's plan to withdraw next year from Gaza and a handful of West Bank settlements has revived prospects for peacemaking.

The Bush administration is looking to Qureia, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) and other senior Palestinian officials to take hold of security arrangements in Gaza and on the West Bank and to make the withdrawal smooth.

American strategists, wrestling with one of the toughest international problems Bush will face in his second term, seem convinced that serious progress toward a resumption of negotiations is going to take some time.

Toward the end of President Bill Clinton's administration, Arafat and then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak came close to an agreement under Clinton's supervision. But the deal fell through over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian demands that refugees from Israel's 1948 battle for independence be permitted to resettle in Israel.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to urge Bush to take a more vigorous approach to the Mideast conflict when they meet Friday at the White House.