Bush, Sharon discuss peace in Texas

President Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday he must not allow further West Bank settlement growth and said Israeli and Palestinian doubts about each other were hampering peace prospects.

In response, Sharon said that Israel would abide by the internationally negotiated “road map” peace plan, which calls for a settlement freeze, but would keep some large Jewish population blocs in the West Bank under its control.

At a joint news conference on Bush’s ranch, both leaders sounded pessimistic about near-term prospects for peace.

Sharon said Israel would not move forward on the road map until Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas did more to disarm militant groups and brought about “a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement.”

“We will continue with the negotiations only after Palestinians agree to stop the terror,” Sharon said.

Bush cited “a lack of confidence in the region. I can understand that. There’s been a lot of death. A lot of innocent people have lost their lives. And there’s just not a lot of confidence on either side.”


Auditors question Iraq construction costs

Pentagon auditors have questioned nearly $122 million in costs claimed by Halliburton under contracts to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry and supply fuel to its citizens, according to records released yesterday.

The Democratic congressman who released the audits said the Bush administration had withheld the amounts of the questioned costs from the U.N. board overseeing Iraq reconstruction. California Rep. Henry Waxman is a longtime critic of the administration’s treatment of Halliburton, which Vice President Dick Cheney headed from 1995 to 2000.

Cheney and the Pentagon have said the vice president plays no role in contract decisions. Both the company and the Defense Department say Halliburton was not given preferential treatment.

“Halliburton has been a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars,” company spokeswoman Beverly Scippa said yesterday. She said Halliburton has cooperated with the audits.

“This is all part of the normal contracting process, and it is important to note that the auditors’ role is advisory only,” Scippa said in a statement.


Concerns grow over Jewish settler resistance

The Israeli military plans to disarm residents of four Jewish settlements in the West Bank two weeks before the communities are to be dismantled this summer, officials said yesterday, reflecting growing concern that settler resistance in the West Bank will be far more difficult to put down than in the fenced-in Gaza Strip.

Access for Israeli extremists already living in the West Bank to the four tiny northern settlements is relatively easy, and the warning conjured images of thousands of ultranationalists converging on the settlements to prevent their evacuation — as they have resisted removal of unauthorized outposts in recent months.

Officials expressed concern about armed confrontations, and settlers said yesterday they would not hand in their guns.


Bush’s first second-term nominees confirmed

The Senate yesterday confirmed the first of President Bush’s second-term judicial nominees as senators continued to argue over Democrats blocking the White House’s most wanted candidates.

Senators on a 95-0 vote confirmed Paul Crotty as a U.S. District judge for New York state. With Crotty’s confirmation, Bush has put 205 trial and appellate judges on the federal court since becoming president.

“It is my hope that we will be able to move other nominees to the Senate floor for confirmation,” said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)

Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush’s 52 appeals court nominations through filibuster threats, while allowing Republicans to confirm 34 others.

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