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Laura Bush jostled, heckled in Jerusalem shrine visit
22 May 2005 15:50:07 GMT
Source: Reuters
(Adds Bush's spokeswoman, edits)

By Adam Entous

JERUSALEM, May 22 (Reuters) - Protesters jostled and harangued U.S. first lady Laura Bush on Sunday when she visited a flashpoint Jerusalem shrine holy to both Muslims and Jews and at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli police and U.S. Secret Service agents formed a tight cordon around her to push back crowds in what for Bush, on a Middle East goodwill tour, was a rare close encounter with hostile demonstrators.

A small crowd of about two dozen people pressed in on Bush as she entered the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's walled Old City. A Palestinian worshipper cried out at her: "You are not welcome here. Why are you hassling our Muslims? How dare you come in here?"

Bush, who made an appeal for peace later, did not respond to him or an old woman inside the mosque who shouted "Koran, Koran" at her in Arabic.

Bush, dressed in a black pantsuit, with black headscarf donned in religious respect and held tightly on her head, exited with police linking arms around her to ward off onlookers.

She began a Middle East trip on Friday acknowledging that the U.S. image in the Muslim world had been badly damaged by a prisoner abuse scandal and a magazine report, since retracted, that U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran.

Shortly before visiting the mosque, Bush appeared at the adjacent ancient Western Wall and was confronted by dozens of nationalist Jews demanding Washington free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. They shouted and waved placards.

Bush inserted a small handwritten note in a cleft of the wall and paused there for about 60 seconds before returning to her heavily-guarded motorcade for the short trip to the mosque.

The disturbances during her trip to the Jerusalem holy site showed "what an emotional place this is as we go from each one of these very, very holy spots to the next," Bush said later during a stop in the West Bank oasis town of Jericho.

PEACE APPEAL

"We're reminded again of what we all want, what every one of us prays for...what we all want is peace," said Bush, who in Jericho heard complaints from Palestinian women about Israeli occupation policies such as roadblocks.

She said the chance of achieving peace "right now ... is as close as we've been in a really long time. It will take a lot of baby steps and I'm sure (there) will be a few steps backward on the way".

The shrine compound visited by Bush is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif ("Noble Sanctuary") and Jews as Temple Mount and has been a frequent venue of violence rooted in conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims to sovereignty over the site.

It is the most sacred site for Jews, the spot where biblical King Solomon built a temple and where a second temple was razed by the Romans, except for its Western Wall. It is Islam's third holiest site, home to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques.

Laura Bush's spokeswoman Susan Whitson played down the tense scene at the Dome of the Rock. "She completely understood what she was coming into," Whitson said.

Most worshippers in the Dome of the Rock were quiet during Bush's visit, with some curious women following her as she walked about. "It's so beautiful, just magnificent," she said, gazing up at the mosque's famed golden dome.

U.S. President George W. Bush hopes to revive a "road map" plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace after the January election of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who engineered a ceasefire after 4 1/2 years of bloodshed.

"The United States will do what they can in this process," said Laura Bush. "It also requires the work of the people here, of the Palestinians and the Israelis, to come to the table."

Her Sunday stops were the first time on her five-day trip, which has so far taken her to the Jordanian capital Amman and the Dead Sea, that she faced protesters.

"We neither welcome nor reject her visit. We have no stance," said Ikrima Sabri, the Muslim grand mufti of Jerusalem.

"We do object to the heavy Israeli security in order to give the impression to the visitor that Jerusalem is under Israeli sovereignty," Sabri told Reuters.

Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem, including the Old City, along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians want all three areas for a future state.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in the West Bank)

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