The use of weapons in the four-year-long intifada was a mistake and should end, Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday in an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

Abbas, who is expected to win the January 9 presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority, said Palestinians should resist the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza without resorting to violence.

It is important to "keep the uprising away from arms because the uprising is a legitimate right of the people to express their rejection of the occupation by popular and social means," he said. "Using the weapons was harmful and has got to stop."

In response, the White House said it welcomed moves aimed at fighting terror. "We remain focused on working toward a strategy that will put in place the institutions necessary for a viable [Palestinians] state to emerge," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "But fighting terrorism and putting in a unified security force are key to those efforts."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office refused to comment on the interview, sticking to its policy of avoiding any show of support for Abbas lest it sour the support for him in the Palestinian street.

The idea of giving up weapons was dismissed by a spokesman for Hamas, however. Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas politburo based in Damascus, said Hamas is not yet ready to accept a cease-fire with Israel. However, Meshal did say that a pan-Palestinian agreement for a cease-fire remains an option.

Palestinian sources meanwhile were saying that while Abbas was cordial in his meetings with Meshal and Islamic Jihad figures in Damascus, the meeting was brief, and Abbas intends to focus on Hamas and other factions in the territories and will give short shrift to the Syrian-based Hamas activists.

A pragmatic businessman who was long at Yasser Arafat's side as the No. 2 in the PLO, Abbas has been opposed to the armed intifada since it began in September 2000. While Arafat was still alive, Abbas told associates in closed-door meetings that he felt the uprising was a mistake, but only hinted at it in public, not wanting to challenge Arafat.

However, during a brief period as Palestinian Authority prime minister in 2003, he tried to push his plan to disarm the irregulars and tried to get Arafat to hand over the authority over the PA security forces, which Abbas planned to unify into three groups. Since assuming the PLO's leadership, he has been speaking about that plan again - this time without Arafat to obstruct it.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that if the Palestinians work to quell the violence, Israel could coordinate its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Banks settlements with the new Palestinian leadership, and that Israel would be ready to hand over West Bank cities now under Israeli control to the PA if it could guarantee law and order would prevail.

Abbas told the newspaper that Palestinian security is currently in a state of chaos. "Frankly, the Palestinian [security] apparatus needs discipline. There is security chaos; that's why were demanding and are seeking to unify the security apparatus," Abbas told Asharq Al-Awsat. He said he was in talks with the militant Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to bring them into the framework of the PLO.