WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Friday that senior Palestinian official Mahmud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazin, would be acceptable to the United States as a replacement for Yasser Arafat.
In his policy statement on Iraq Wednesday, President Bush had hinted that Washington would like to see a new leader head the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat is the current chairman but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants him replaced by a more moderate Arab leader.
Also Friday, after meeting with Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters special U.N. envoy to the Middle East Terji Road-Larsen announced the a special Palestine Liberation Organization council would meet next week to nominate a Palestinian Authority prime minister.
"I met with President Arafat on behalf of Mr. Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, and discussed with him (Arafat) several issues of a common concern, especially the nomination of the Palestinian prime minister," Road-Larsen said.
During their meeting, he said, Arafat assured him the PLO's Palestinian Central Council would convene next week to discuss the question of appointing a new prime minister, as Arafat had suggested two weeks ago. If the PCC approved the establishment of a prime ministerial post, the Palestinian Legislative Council would meet the week after, Road-Larsen said. However, no mention has been made of what duties that post would entail.
In Washington, Armitage did not say whether the Israelis would also accept Abu Mazin, but he was a key figure in the Oslo negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the peace agreement. The Israelis regard him as a moderate member of the Palestinian leadership.
He remains secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive council and one of Arafat's close aides, but he is no longer active, having distanced himself from the Palestinian leader in July last year when it became obvious that Arafat was no longer acceptable to Israel and the United States.
Talking to a select group of journalists invited to interview him at the State Department, Armitage said one of the reasons the United States wanted Arafat gone is that, "Sharon and Arafat won't talk to each other."
When a reporter suggested removing both Arafat and Sharon, Armitage said Israel has "a way of dealing with corruption and bad governance while these things are missing from the Palestinian Authority."
He said the United States would want to see a leader who would be able to "speak authoritatively for the Palestinian people. A good prime minister, he said, "would be a great help to the Palestinian people and also allow them to talk to Israel."
On Iraq, Armitage said that if a change there brings about a Shiite government, the United States would have no objection.
"If the majority of the people of Iraq elect a Shia as a leader than so be it." said Armitage, adding: "If you have a representative government, then all the people of Iraq will decide who they want to rule ... no matter their ethnic or religious identity."
He said, "The Shia population is a prominent population of Iraq, which has been very badly treated by Saddam Hussein."
Armitage said the United States was not afraid of the possibility of a Shiite-run Iraqi making an alliance with Iran, which is so far the only Shiite majority country in the world.
Asked if the United States was worried about such a possibility, he said: "No we are not. I don't think you can make those fine adjustments. If you are going to have a representative government, that's what it means."
Shias are the largest religious group in Iraq but the Iraqi dictator belongs to the Sunni sect of Muslims. In the 1980s, he had a long and bloody war with Shiite Iran, resulting in the death of more than a million people.
Armitage, however, said that the United States was committed to maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity and would not support a separate state for Iraq's ethnic Kurd minority.
(With reporting by Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza)