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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 22:41 GMT 23:41 UK
US drawn into Mid-East chaos
Tanks in Jenin
Powell failed to negotiate a ceasefire during his visit
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By Michael Buchanan
BBC correspondent in Washington

Bush administration officials have always been wary of getting involved in the Middle East.

They worried they would divert attention from their war on terrorism and that they would get bogged down in a conflict from which they could see few gains.

Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat
Arafat spoke angrily after his meeting with Powell
When the violence and bloodshed became too much, President Bush issued a call to both sides to stop the violence.

He implored Yasser Arafat to condemn the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians and to rein in the militants.

He demanded that Israel withdraw from Palestinian areas immediately.

And he asked Arab nations to get involved in the search for a lasting peace.

The White House thought it had come up with a three-pronged attack that would form both the basis of a ceasefire and a political dialogue.

But things soon started falling apart.

Domestic difficulties

At home, there was criticism of the pressure the White House was putting on Israel.

Many in Congress, where the Jewish lobby siding with the right-wing Christian lobby is both powerful and well-organised, wondered how an administration committed to eradicating terrorism could berate a nation they said was merely fighting the same war.

US President George W Bush
Bush said little about Powell's mission for a week
Abroad, Israel refused to pull out of the West Bank, and the administration soon stopped using words like "immediately" and "without delay".

President Bush himself went quiet.

Although he was regularly briefed about developments and made phone-calls to foreign leaders, he did not utter a word publicly about the region for a week, surprising many by using last Saturday's weekly radio address to talk about taxes.

His spokesman said the president supported Mr Powell's mission wholeheartedly and had given him the discretion to do what he thought necessary to achieve peace.

All the while, the White House was playing down the level of expectation, saying that many people's hopes about what could be achieved were simply unrealistic.

It appears they were right.

Success claims

Colin Powell flies back to Washington with little to show for 10 days of active, high profile involvement - no ceasefire, Israeli troops still in Palestinian areas and the words of a furious Yasser Arafat ringing in his ears.

And on the war on terrorism, while talk about military action against Iraq is still heard in the White House's corridors, it does not have the same urgency that it did just a few weeks ago.

The administration will doubtless claim it has had some successes: a condemnation of suicide bombings and terrorism in general from Yasser Arafat, and a timetable at least for Israeli withdrawal.


And it will no doubt ask people to see what develops over the next few days.

But in many regards the administration's worst fears about the Middle East have been realised.

It is becoming bogged down in the region, having to spend more effort on a problem that has taxed the minds of every US president since Israel was created.

The past two weeks have been an unwelcome start to the administration's detailed involvement in this seemingly intractable problem.

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