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Arafat OKs bill on prime minister post

JERUSALEM — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed legislation Tuesday creating the position of prime minister in a major step toward U.S.-sought reforms.

Arafat is expected to offer the job to the No. 2 leader in the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who has spoken out against the armed uprising against Israel. He is the candidate favored by the United States and Israel.

Arafat signed the legislation hours after ballots were cast.

"It's the beginning of a transition — it is certainly a turning point and a qualitative shift in the political culture," legislator Hanan Ashrawi said. "Now we have power-sharing that is clearly spelled out."

Arafat has been wrangling with the increasingly assertive parliament over giving some of his sweeping powers to a prime minister and reluctantly agreed to create the new position under international pressure. But even with the reforms, Arafat will retain control over security forces and peace talks with Israel.

President Bush said last week that installing a credible Palestinian prime minister with real powers is a prerequisite for unveiling a U.S.-backed "road map" to Palestinian statehood.

Before Tuesday's session, Arafat dropped a demand to retain a say over appointing Cabinet ministers.

"The law is signed, ratified and will be published," said Saeb Erekat, a Cabinet minister. "That means the current government is now a caretaker government and the new Cabinet must be presented within three weeks."

Last week, the 88-member parliament gave preliminary approval to legislation defining the new post. The prime minister was given the right to appoint, supervise and fire Cabinet ministers — tasks once the sole preserve of Arafat.

Arafat had sought three amendments to the Palestinian basic law, including a demand giving him final say in approving a Cabinet. The wording was vague, but legislators suspicious of his intentions feared the loophole was another way of significantly weakening the prime minister's powers.

On Monday, parliament rejected Arafat's demand. Late Monday, Arafat convened legislators from his Fatah movement, who have a majority in parliament, in hopes of persuading them to support his request.

The legislators refused, however, and Arafat was forced to drop his demand, Ibrahim Abu Naja, a Fatah legislator who participated in the meeting, said Tuesday.

"He (Arafat) decided to give up his demand to participate in the forming of the government," Abu Naja said. Arafat is free to offer advice to the prime minister, but will not be able to impose his wishes, Abu Naja said.

Divisions in Arafat's own government and party have been developing for some time.

One of his most outspoken critics, Palestinian legislator Husam Khader, was detained by Israeli troops near the West Bank town of Nablus on Monday, the army said. Khader, a critic of Palestinian corruption, was expected to vote against Arafat's proposed amendments.

Last year, he called Palestinian Cabinet ministers a "bunch of thieves." It was unclear why the army detained Khader.

In the West Bank village of Baka al-Hatab, meanwhile, Israeli soldiers hunting for militants shot and killed Nasser Asida, 27, a top commander of Hamas' Qassam Brigade, the army said. Asida was hiding in a cave when a gun battle broke out, witnesses said.

He was on Israel's most-wanted list for allegedly masterminding attacks on Jewish settlements, the army said.

In a separate battle Tuesday, Israeli troops killed Hamas leader Ali Alian, 27, in a village near Bethlehem. One soldier was also killed and another injured in the shooting.

Alian was accused of planning at least three attacks on Israelis last year, including one in Haifa that killed 16 Israelis and one American, the army said. He was held in Israeli jails between 1994 and 1999.

In Gaza, an 11-year-old boy was critically injured at a funeral when mourners began shooting into the air, as is customary, and Israeli troops opened fire. The shooting occurred near the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim in Khan Yunis.

Also in Gaza, Israeli troops fired tear gas at about 300 activists from the Palestinian-backed International Solidarity Movement and Palestinian non-governmental organizations, who gathered to honor an American woman killed Sunday by an Israeli bulldozer.

Rachel Corrie, from Olympia, Wash., was trying to block the bulldozer from demolishing a building in a refugee camp. Mourners laid flowers on the spot where she was killed. One of the activists ran up to an approaching Israeli tank and pasted a poster with Corrie's picture on it.

She was the first American peace activist to be killed in almost 30 month of fighting.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah — Arafat's government headquarters, about 100 people demonstrated against the U.S.-led war with Iraq.