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Jailed Barghouti leads Palestinian polls
Updated: 2004-12-07 15:44

Opinion polls published Monday showed that jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti poses a threat to mainstream candidate Mahmoud Abbas in the Jan. 9 presidential election to replace Yasser Arafat.

However, Barghouti's associates say he might yet withdraw in exchange for reform promises from Abbas.

The polls are the first since Barghouti threw the election scene into turmoil by entering the race just before the filing deadline. Barghouti is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly shooting attacks of Israelis.

Abbas, 69, a pragmatist who has spoken out against violence and enjoys the tacit support of the international community, is the candidate of the ruling Fatah movement.

In violence Tuesday, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at armed Palestinians near Gaza City, killing a member of Islamic Jihad, the militant group said.

The strike came shortly after an Israeli soldier was killed and four were wounded when militants set off an explosion in a booby-trapped chicken coop in Gaza City. Hamas claimed responsibility for the blast.

Two of the polls published Monday predicted a tight race between Abbas and Barghouti, while a third gave Abbas the advantage.

In a poll by the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, 35 percent of respondents said they supported Barghouti, compared with 34 percent for Abbas. Another poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, headed by independent pollster Khalil Shikaki, said Abbas had 40 percent support, compared with 38 percent for Barghouti. The results of both polls fell within the margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Only one poll, by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion run by pollster Nabil Kukali, gave Abbas a comfortable lead of 40 percent, compared to 22 percent for Barghouti. That poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Barghouti, 45, the West Bank leader of Fatah, was captured in Ramallah in 2002 and is the highest Palestinian official in Israeli custody. Because Abbas was already the official Fatah candidate. Barghouti was forced to run as an independent.

Barghouti's candidacy raised stiff opposition from mainstream Fatah officials and some younger leaders, charging the fiery, charismatic candidate would split the party and cause internal conflict.

Fatah on Monday threatened to strip Barghouti of his membership if he continues his bid for the Palestinian presidency.

Farouk Kaddoumi, who succeeded Arafat as Fatah chief, said the party would ban any member who did not abide by the decisions of its central committee, according to a statement from Kaddoumi's office in Tunis, Tunisia, where he is based.

"Any Fatah member who deliberately sets himself apart from decisions of its central committee is considered to have resigned his membership ... regardless of rank," the statement said.

At the office of the "Free Marwan Barghouti" drive in Ramallah on Monday, backers were turning their operation into a temporary presidential campaign headquarters.

For now, activist Saed Nimr is the campaign manager, but a permanent director is to be named this week indicating Barghouti is in the race to stay.

Nimr said the fact that Barghouti is in prison would not stop him from serving as president. "He will appoint a strong prime minister and a strong vice president," Nimr said. "They will be visiting him from week to week to get instructions."

However, Palestinian officials say that according to the Palestinian constitution, Barghouti cannot serve as president from prison, because one of the president's legal obligations is to attend sessions of the Palestinian parliament.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Kadoura Fares, who is close to Barghouti, raised the possibility Barghouti might withdraw in exchange for promises by Abbas to give a greater say to young Fatah activists.

"A month is a long time," Fares said. "If Barghouti withdraws his candidacy and lets Abu Mazen (Abbas) win, it shows that Abu Mazen needs to forge an alliance with the younger generation."

Another Barghouti backer, Ahmed Ghneim, said it's conceivable his candidate might drop out.

"This is being discussed, but Marwan said he insists that he wants to continue," he said, "but there is a lot of talk going on about this issue, we are discussing the issue. And nothing is out of the question."

The Bir Zeit poll indicated support for Barghouti is particularly strong among women, youths, villagers, the poor and the less educated. Abbas scored higher among men, the middle-class, the elderly, the educated and city residents.

Abbas is more popular in Gaza, while Barghouti scored higher in the West Bank.

All three polls were conducted after last Wednesday's deadline for announcing candidacies. In all, there are 10 contenders for Palestinian Authority (news - web sites) president. In all three surveys, pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti, an independent, came in third, with support ranging from 6 percent to 14 percent.

Shikaki said his poll showed in general that Fatah has gained in popularity at the expense of the militant Islamic Hamas, which is boycotting the election. Shikaki said part of the rise is a sympathy vote after Arafat's death.

Also, he said, "the findings show that the public is more optimistic about the future than it has been at any time during the past four years."

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