UN: 320 Observers in the Region to Monitor PA Elections

A United Nations spokeswoman announced Tuesday that 51 member states had already sent 320 observers to the region as part of a delegation to monitor the January 9 Palestinian Authority elections.

The UN said that it expects a total of 700 observers to be in place by the time voting is gets underway.

The Bush administration is considering a proposal to boost U.S. aid to the Palestinians this year by up to $200 million - a more than two-fold increase - to help shore up support for a newly elected president, sources close to the deliberations said on Tuesday.

The additional American funding, which sources said was still being discussed within the administration and could be scaled back during final White House deliberations, would help the Palestinians prepare for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

The money is expected to be tied to Palestinian efforts in stopping violence and carrying out reforms, U.S. officials and diplomatic sources said.

Moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is the front-runner in the race to succeed the late Yasser Arafat in the Jan. 9 election, and senior Bush administration officials said they believe they can work with him despite concerns about some of his comments on the campaign trail.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said earlier this week that scenes of Abbas being hoisted onto the shoulders of gunmen at election rallies were "disturbing," but that Abbas had "to reach out to all parts of the Palestinian community."

And Abbas called Israel "the Zionist enemy" on Tuesday, a statement Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's deputy described as "intolerable." The White House had no immediate reaction.

Under the aid proposal, President George W. Bush would include up to $200 million for the Palestinians in an emergency package to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan expected to total $80 billion to $100 billion. Bush is expected to send the package to Congress next month.

Other fundsThe new aid would come on top of the financial assistance already provided by the United States, either through the United Nations or through non-governmental organizations.

The U.S. Congress approves $75 million a year in indirect funds to support aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza. The State Department estimated total U.S. assistance, including funding that goes through the United Nations, at nearly $200 million.

Most of the new money is expected to flow through non-governmental organizations because key U.S. lawmakers are wary of providing direct aid to the Palestinians.

Following Arafat's death, Bush provided $20 million directly to the Palestinian Authority, but on condition that the money be used to pay Israeli utility bills.

Sources said Israel, which receives about $3 billion a year in U.S. aid, may also seek extra funding to bolster border security and overhaul checkpoints as part of its plan to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Bush has approached European leaders to coordinate efforts to restart peace talks since Arafat's death, and has backed British plans for a Middle East conference aimed at fostering Palestinian reforms.

The World Bank said last month that the Palestinians could expect an extra $500 million a year in vital aid if violence stopped and there was progress toward peace with Israel.