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Bush: Arafat 'hasn't earned' U.S. trust

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush sharply questioned Yasser Arafat's ability to act as a peacemaker in the Middle East and said the Palestinian leader "hasn't earned" the U.S. administration's trust.

In an interview with Britain's Granada Television -- to be broadcast Friday -- the president pointedly added, "There are others in the region who can lead."

Bush's interview with British television comes on the eve of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit this weekend to the president's ranch in Texas, where the two leaders will hold talks.

The president said he didn't know if Secretary of State Colin Powell would meet with Arafat next week when Powell goes to the region. Arafat met with U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni Friday.

Bush left little doubt that he was disappointed in Arafat, who remains pinned down in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah as Israeli forces continue with an aggressive military operation to root out what they have described as a terrorist infrastructure.

"My worry is that Yasser Arafat can't perform," Bush said, according to a transcript of the interview. "He's been given plenty of opportunities."

Asked whether Arafat had forfeited Bush's trust, the president replied, "He certainly hasn't earned it."

As an example, Bush said that Arafat had pledged to fight terrorism, but then ordered a shipment of arms from Iran. "He's got a long way to go," Bush said.

Bush demurred, however, when asked if the Palestinian people should look for another leader.

"That's up to them," Bush replied. "Far be it from the American president to get to decide who leads what country. I'm just telling you since I've been the president, the man hadn't performed."

The president repeated his call for Israel to "withdraw from the occupied territory."

On other matters, Bush:

-- said he had "no idea" whether Osama bin Laden is alive, but vowed to capture the suspected terrorist mastermind if he was. "He's not making a lot of noise these days, and maybe he's dug in one of those holes, but there is not a hole deep enough," Bush said.

-- declared he had "no immediate plans to conduct military operations" against Iraq, but said the goal of the United States was to remove Saddam Hussein from power. "I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go," he said. "That's all I'm willing to share with you."

Asked how he would achieve that goal, Bush replied, "Just wait and see."

Iraq, Bush said, was one of several items that he plans to discuss with Blair.




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