US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his visit to Washington last month that the Bush administration wanted to withdraw the American soldiers serving as peacekeepers in Sinai, a move to reduce troop commitments abroad, reported the New York Times on Thursday.
Israeli diplomats said Sharon was initially taken aback by the suggestion and briefly argued against it but said he would agree if a symbolic American presence remained, the report said, citing officials as saying.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that Rumsfeld and Sharon discussed the Sinai peacekeepers when the Israeli leader visited Washington in March, reported The Associated Press.
But Quigley said he didn't know details of the discussion, the AP said.
The unit, known as the Multinational Force and Observers, was set up in 1982 after the Camp David agreement in 1979 that sealed the peace between Egypt and Israel. The force of about 1,900 soldiers from 10 countries includes 865 Americans. It does not operate under the United Nations flag.
Rumsfeld also discussed the possible withdrawal with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his visit to Washington early April, the report said.
“Mubarak opposed the move, citing the Israeli and the Palestinian conflict and strained relations between Israel and Egypt,” the New York Times said.
The AP said that the United States must win the agreement of both Israel and Egypt to withdraw its forces.
The Israeli government is likely to give its formal answer when its defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, visits Washington next month, Israeli officials told the agency, adding that Egypt would reply at about the same time.
Before the presidential election, the Bush campaign said American troops in Sinai were among the US peacekeeping operations that would be reviewed to determine whether they were putting too much strain on the military.
State Department officials were not informed of the proposal and the plan was not outlined in any of the preparatory diplomatic papers drawn up before the Rumsfeld-Sharon meeting, the report added.
Rumsfeld discussed the idea with Secretary of State Colin Powell, a State Department official told the paper, but it was not known whether Powell endorsed it – Albawaba.com
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