Chirac, Hussein Warn of 'Extremists'

AMMAN -- French President Jacques Chirac and Jordan's King Hussein expressed shared anxiety Thursday about the faltering Middle East peace process and the danger that "extremists" could gain the upper hand.

In a speech to the Jordanian parliament, Chirac declared: "Today peace is in danger. The security of the countries of the region cannot be guaranteed by force. It can only be guaranteed by peace. And if there is no peace, there will be no security."

He also called for mutual understanding between Islam and the West and appealed to the international community to carry out "at long last" a deal allowing Iraq to sell some oil to buy food and medicine, warning of a humanitarian disaster.

A senior French official said Chirac's prevailing impression of his visits to Syria, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan was that the peace process was in crisis and the forces of evil might prevail.

King Hussein struck a similar note of gloom in an interview with the international Arabic newspaper al-Hayat published on the day Israel marked the first anniversary according to the Jewish calendar of the assassination of peace-making prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish rightist.

"Since the assassination of Rabin, we started feeling that the extremists are dictating their will on the arena," the king said. "What is dangerous is to reach a point where people lose hope and then deterioration could be accelerated."

The king backed Chirac's drive to increase French and European political influence on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, provided it was in harmony with U.S. mediation efforts.

On his Middle East tour, due to end with a 20-hour visit to Lebanon from Thursday night and a stopover in Cairo, Chirac has called for the European Union to co-sponsor the peace process, saying Europe can help restore confidence in the area.

Citing Jordan as a model of tolerance, Chirac devoted much of his Amman speech to the relationship between Islam and the West, dramatized last year's wave of bombings by suspected Algerian Moslem extremists in France.

The French leader praised Islam as a religion of moderation and attributed the rise of "extremist movements that divert Islam to serve violence" as a result of economic and social change that had produced frustration and exclusion.

"And yet Islam and religious extremism are poles apart. All religions in history have produced, and still produce their own fanatics ... Let us beware of hastily and dangerously lumping people together ... We must reject the action of those who legitimate recourse to violence and who build artificial frontiers between Islam and the West," Chirac said.

Hours after he left the Gaza Strip, Israel imposed a total closure of the Palestinian territories to prevent possible attacks on the anniversary of the killing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shqaqi in Malta by suspected Israeli agents.

In contrast to Chirac's vibrant plea for a Palestinian state, which he repeated in Amman, King Hussein avoided any mention of a state in his interview, saying only that the Palestinians must have the right to live on their own soil.