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Israeli Cabinet Declares Sharon Permanently Incapacitated

By Robert Berger (VOA-Jerusalem)

Israel has appointed a new leader to replace ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The next Israeli government plans to continue with Sharon's master plan to disengage from conflict with the Palestinians. Israel's Cabinet declared Sharon permanently incapacitated, officially marking the end of his five-year tenure in office.

The 78-year-old Sharon remains in a coma after suffering a massive stroke nearly 100 days ago. Under Israeli law, a replacement must be named within 100 days.

Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon announced that Ehud Olmert has been appointed the new prime minister. Olmert, who heads the Kadima party founded by Sharon, won national elections two-weeks ago. Olmert said he would work to form a new government quickly that would faithfully serve the state of Israel. He plans to pick up where Sharon left off in drawing the nation's final borders.

Sharon pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip last August, and Olmert has vowed to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank by 2010. At the same time, he would annex big West Bank settlement blocs. These moves would be unilateral because with the election of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas in January, Israel believes it does not have a Palestinian peace partner.

It is all part of Sharon's vision to separate from the Palestinians and create a strong Jewish majority behind defensible borders. Sharon's departure from the political scene he dominated for decades marks the end of an era. But his legacy will shape Israeli politics for years to come.

Iran's President Hails Successful Enrichment of Uranium

By VOA News &

The president of Iran said his country has successfully enriched uranium for the first time. The key announcement is likely to increase tensions over Iran's nuclear program as U.N. deadline approaches for Iran to end nuclear fuel enrichment.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad formally declared that Iran has "joined the club of nuclear countries," adding "the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been accomplished by our young generation of scientists." He said they have enriched uranium to the degree needed for nuclear power plants.

The announcement was met by cheers and chants of "Allahu Akbar "or" God is great," from an audience that included clerics and senior military commanders.

The timing of the announcement is seen as critical. The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is expected to arrive in Tehran this week for talks aimed at resolving the standoff over Iran's nuclear aspirations.

The U.N. Security Council has told Iran to stop all nuclear fuel enrichment by April 28, just 15 days away.

In a nationally televised speech from one of Iran's holiest cities, Ahmadinejad said Iran's nuclear ambitions are peaceful and within the country's rights under international law. He rejected accusations by the United States and other Western nations that the country is seeking nuclear weapons.

He urged the West not to try to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. "I recommend that they not create everlasting hatred in the minds of the Iranian nation and the freedom-seeking nations of the world."

Speaking before the Iranian president, the head of the country's nuclear program said Iran plans to expand its enrichment program to be able to use 3,000 centrifuges by the end of the year. Iranian officials say they are currently using 164 centrifuges.

The Iranian announcement was greeted with dismay by officials in Europe, the United State and Russia. The White House called it "moving in the wrong direction," but the State Department said the United States will continue to use diplomacy to change Iran's nuclear policy.

Retired IDF Northern District Commander Maj. Gen. Yossi Peled told Channel 1 TV's Politika program on Tuesday night that if Iran does reach nuclear independence, it will indeed represent a threat to Israel's existence. Peled added that he is skeptical regarding the success of diplomatic efforts towards Iran halting its nuclear program.

And in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reiterated the Bush administration's policy of using diplomacy, not force, to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, but he refused to comment on the announcement by Iran's president that Iran has successfully enriched uranium.

Rumsfeld made it clear to reporters he had nothing to say about Ahmadinejad's announcement that Iran has enriched uranium to a level used in nuclear power plants. "I'd rather wait and see what our experts say about it. I've not seen the statement, I've not had a chance to analyze anything that they've said and nor have I had a chance to talk to the people who have the responsibility in the United States government for making judgments and assessments with respect to things like that."

As for published media reports saying the Pentagon has been working on contingency plans for possible military strikes to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, Rumsfeld said he had nothing to add to comments already made by President Bush. "I think the president handled it properly. The United States of America is on a diplomatic track. That is the president's decision, that is where our European allies are. There is obviously concern about Iran. It's a country that supports terrorists. It's a country that has indicated an interest in having weapons of mass destruction. So, obviously the president has indicated his concern about the country. But it is simply not useful to get into fantasy land."

While Bush has repeatedly said the United States prefers to use diplomacy in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, administration officials also say that no options have been ruled out, including military measures.

On Iraq, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, commented on recently published articles about the responsibility of senior military officers to speak out honestly about their opinions regarding the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Gen. Pace, who was standing alongside Rumsfeld, strongly denied that U.S. military officials were prohibited from giving their opinions, for or against, the idea of invading Iraq. "We had then and we have now every opportunity to speak our minds. And if we do not, shame on us because the opportunity is there. It is elicited from us and we are expected to. And the plan that was executed was developed by military officers, presented by military officers, questioned by civilians as they should, revamped by military officers, and blessed by the senior military leadership."

Palestinian Delegation to Ask Iran for Financial Aid

By VOA News

Six Palestinian legislators are headed for Iran on a mission to win financial support for the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which says it is broke.

Officials said the delegation left the Gaza Strip Tuesday, just days after the United States and the European Union cut off aid to the Hamas government. Both Washington and the Europeans consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and leaders say they will not restore funding until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

In the West Bank Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said conditions in the Palestinian territories are deteriorating rapidly as the Western sanctions take hold.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Palestinian Authority has become a terrorist authority. He told reporters that Israel would have no contact with any part of the Palestinian government, including Abbas. Abbas is the leader of the Fatah party, which was defeated by Hamas in legislative polls in December.

Pesach Eve: Police on Maximum Alert


The high alert level announced by the police on Sunday continues ahead of Pesach, for fear of terror attacks during the holiday. The defense establishment currently holds 77 general terror warnings and another 13 specific attack alerts.

Security officials estimate that the recent IDF strikes in Gaza will trigger terror groups to attempt and retaliate. Most Palestinian organizations have already vowed to avenge the army's operations last weekend.

The police have already deployed across the seam line and around Jerusalem, and also increased its presence inside cities. Until the beginning of the holiday Wednesday afternoon, police forces will concentrate their efforts on open markets, while on Seder night they are set to boost security around synagogues and hotels. As the weather promises to be warm and sunny during the holiday vacation, the police also plan to reinforce presence in parks and recreation centers.

The general closure that has been imposed on the West Bank and Gaza in Purim will continue to be in force until the Pesach holiday is over. Passage through the border crossings and checkpoints will be allowed only in humanitarian cases.

Preparations for Pesach have also been completed in the capital. Policemen will secure the dozens of events and tens of thousands of visitors expected to arrive in Jerusalem throughout the holiday.

Kaddafi: Jews, Christians Should Also Be Allowed Into Mecca


Contrary to current Islamic practice, which forbids non-Muslims from entering Mecca, Libyan leader Moammar Kaddafi said that Jews and Christians should be allowed to worship in the Saudi Arabian city, home of Islam's holiest site.

The ban on non-Muslims in Mecca should be amended to keep out only "heretics and the impure," of which the Jews and Christians are not a part, Kaddafi said, as they "believe in God." Specifically, Kaddafi called on Muslim religious leaders to allow President George W. Bush to pray in the main mosque in Mecca, if he is not "impure" enough to rule out eating and befriending him.

The Libyan dictator further commented that those "who slandered the Prophet in Scandinavia were wrong and committed a mistake because they did not consider Mohammed as their prophet as well due to the wrong teachings that incite hatred."

Olmert-Appointed Minister: Arabs Who Kill Soldiers Are Not Terrorists


Kadima Party official and acting Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni told ABC's Nightline program that Arab attacks on soldiers should not be considered terrorist attacks and could be seen as "more legitimate" than attacks on civilians.

Her statements have garnered much press and she reiterated them in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday. Livni defended the statements by saying that she had worked for years to convince the international community that Arab terrorists were not "freedom fighters."

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