Rice to Seek Additional Funds to Boost Abbas' Security Forces

EU leaders also call on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon; Assad: No peace in Mideast without Syria, Iran

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday she would ask the U.S. Congress for tens of millions of dollars to strengthen the security forces of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

"We will request funding to support the security reform [of Abbas's forces] and I think we will get support," said Rice in an interview with Reuters, adding that the aid would be in the range of tens of millions of dollars.

The funding request comes as tensions are at their highest in a decade in the Palestinian Authority, with government unity talks stalled and Hamas accusing Abbas of trying to start a civil war.

The United States wants to ensure that Abbas, whose Fatah party was trounced by Hamas in elections last January, emerges victorious in any power struggle with Hamas and has been saying for months that more needs to be done to boost his forces.

But Rice cautioned this could take some time. "You can't build security forces overnight to deal with the kind of lawlessness that is there in Gaza which largely derives from an inability to govern," she said.

"Their (the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority) inability to govern, of course, comes from their unwillingness to meet international standards," she added.

State Department officials have been discussing the request in recent weeks with key staff on Capitol Hill, trying to convince them the money will not reach Hamas.

"We are going to adopt extremely concrete and tight measures to make sure that the money is going to the right places," said Rice.

The United States, the European Union and others regard Hamas as a terrorist group and have cut off direct aid to the group.

EU extends Palestinian aid deal that bypasses Hamas-led gov'tEuropean Union leaders on Friday extended by three months an aid deal for the Palestinians that bypasses the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government that took office earlier this year.

In a two-day summit in Brussels, the leaders also urged Syria to respect democracy in Lebanon and to stop meddling in its neighbor's internal affairs.

Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel has meant diplomatic and economic isolation from the international community and triggered a financial crisis for the Palestinians.

EU leaders said "the protracted deterioration" of the Palestinian situation justified continuing the World Bank-monitored aid scheme that has funneled hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) directly to Palestinians.

The Middle East faces "one of the worst crises in years," EU leaders said, stating their readiness to work with a "legitimate" unity Palestinian government acceptable to the international community.

Damascus "must end all interference in Lebanese internal affairs and actively engage in the stabilization of Lebanon and the region," the leaders said.

France - a longtime ally of Lebanon, its former protectorate - has insisted the EU take a stronger stance on Syria, which has long exerted influence on its smaller neighbor and backs Hezbollah guerrillas based in Lebanon's south.

French President Jacques Chirac told reporters Friday that the 25 EU nations stand united in their support of "the democratic institutions in Lebanon and, as a result, in support of the democratically elected government" of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

"Our security and our prosperity depend also on the stability in this troubled region," he said. "We cannot appear divided or inactive as a spiral of uncontrolled violence looms."

Lebanon, still rebuilding from a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah that ended in August, has been wracked by political upheaval for weeks. Since December 1, the Hezbollah-led opposition has mobilized thousands of supporters in mass protests and daily sit-ins in a bid to top Siniora's western-backed government, confining the Lebanese leader in his office in Beirut.

Arab League envoys this week mediated a tentative agreement between the Lebanese government and the opposition on a national unity cabinet.EU leaders also condemned the assassination last month of anti-Syrian Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, and decried any other attempts to "destabilize Lebanon through political assassinations or terrorist acts."

Chirac said France would host an international donor conference for Lebanese reconstruction on January 25. "More than ever, Lebanon needs our help," he said.

EU leaders also warned Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his policies - including his dismissal of the Nazi Holocaust and calls for Israel's destruction - have a "negative impact" on stability in the region.

"Iran needs to play a responsible role in the region," the leaders said in their statement.