On his first visit to the United States as president of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas on Wednesday met members of Congress and briefed them on security and administrative reforms demanded by a US-backed road map for peace.

Abbas asked the US lawmakers to help strengthen the Palestinian Authority's drive to fight corruption and end violence through concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians and not just verbal expressions of support.

In the West Bank city of Ram Allah a senior Palestinian official said it would be difficult to hold elections on time on 17 July because of a dispute between lawmakers in the ruling Fatah faction and Abbas over electoral reforms.

The resistance group Hamas, wants the vote to be held on time. A delay could increase tensions between Fatah and Hamas and threaten to disrupt a fragile ceasefire agreed in March.

Door left open

Hamas did well in recent municipal elections, raising concerns in Fatah and among some Arab states who fear a strong Hamas showing in the coming elections could jeopardise peace moves with Israel.

Abbas told members of the House International Relations Committee that despite their support for postponing the vote, he plans to call for elections as scheduled.

Abbas met an influential panel of
US Congressmen on Wednesday

But he left the door open to a possible delay by adding that he was looking at the elections "through the Central Elections Committee to determine what the best course of action is, but until today the date of election is July 17".

Representative Tom Lantos of California, the senior Democrat on the International Relations Committee, said after the meeting with Abbas: "I told him he would get full support from the Congress if circumstances would necessitate postponing the elections."

Lantos said US lawmakers were not sure free and fair elections could be guaranteed by July "because Abbas has been in power only four months and it's a complex, turbulent, faction-ridden situation".
 
During his meetings on Capitol Hill, Abbas said his government has taken wide steps on financial reform and transparency.

"Our democracy will break if we don't have freedom and your support," Abbas told members of Congress.

"It was pointed out to the president everyone in the room wanted him to succeed. We believe his intentions are good ... he was well received," Lantos said.

Transparency question

Abbas asked Congress to help channel aid directly through the Palestinian Finance Ministry rather than through non-governmental organisations and third parties.

"Why in spite of all the reforms and all the changes, the United States continues to hold back money from the Palestinian Authority?" Abbas said.

"Here two seats down from me is sitting the Palestinian finance minister who has transparency and accountability. Why are they not directing funds straight through the Finance Ministry instead of going around us?" he asked. "This way you undermine the Palestinian Authority rather than help it."

"Why in spite of all the reforms and all the changes, the United States continues to hold back money from the Palestinian Authority?"

PA President Mahmoud Abbas

A senior Palestinian official told Reuters they had asked the White House to approve sending aid directly to the Palestinian Authority and "they told us they are working on a formula and would respond on Thursday in the Bush-Abbas White House meeting".

Associated Press reports, quoting a Bush administration official and congressional aides in advance of the Bush-Abbas meeting, that the Palestinian Authority could receive more direct aid from the US.

One aide said on Wednesday that Bush was expected to announce that tens of millions of dollars would go to the authority. The aide and the others spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not yet been made.

Direct assistance to the Palestinians is allowed only if the president uses a waiver in existing law.

Trust lacking

Any decision to provide direct aid could anger some members of Congress who say they still do not believe the Palestinian Authority should be trusted with US assistance.

The US has provided $200 million for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority this year and President George W Bush has asked for another $150 million for the fiscal year starting 1 October.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the US has already made substantial commitments for financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and Japan had recently made a significant pledge as well.