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JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) - A new security campaign is taking shape in the northern West Bank that Washington sees as a proving ground for Palestinian forces to operate with less Israeli interference and rein in militants.
U.S. and European officials said a deployment in the city of Jenin would begin within weeks using existing members of President Mahmoud Abbas's National Security Forces and police.
Jenin, long a militant bastion and the site of a bloody battle with Israeli forces in 2002, will be a high-profile test of Abbas's ability to curb militants in return for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a Palestinian state.
Those issues are at the heart of efforts by U.S. President George W. Bush to secure a peace deal this year.
Washington wants the Jenin deployment to go beyond combating lawlessness to "going after the terrorist organizations there," a senior U.S. official said.
With soaring unemployment, Jenin's security campaign would be accompanied by a series of development projects, officials said. Washington wants to show progress on security and economic development in the West Bank before Bush visits Israel in May.
U.S.-backed peace talks were launched in November with the goal of reaching a statehood deal before Bush leaves office in January, but Washington says neither side is doing enough to meet their obligations under a peace "road map."
Israel is meant to halt settlement activity and remove Jewish outposts, while the Palestinians combat militants.
But Abbas lost his authority over the Gaza Strip last June when it was seized by his Hamas Islamist rivals, leaving the West Bank as the only proving ground for his efforts.
A compound for the National Security Forces is being built within the walls of Jenin's Muqata, Arabic for headquarters, a building dating back to British rule that Israel flattened at the outset of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.
New metal trailers, housing 16 men each, are being assembled in neat rows next to the Muqata's ruins, still used as a prison.
Colonel Suleiman Emran, who commands the NSF in Jenin, said 250 members were already at the Muqata and that he could quickly accommodate more. He said two trailers can be assembled per day.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear how many members of Abbas's forces would take part in the initial Jenin deployment. He pointed to a 300-plus deployment in Nablus in November as "a good model."
But it is unclear whether Abbas's forces will really challenge militants who are concentrated in the nearby Jenin refugee camp and Qubatya village south of the city.
Security has already improved since militants from Abbas's secular Fatah faction began turning in weapons as part of a government-sponsored amnesty program coordinated with Israel.
"Everything is under control. So what's the point in sending more forces here?" said Abu Ali, head of Jenin's tribal council. "It's just for political reasons."
Hundreds of Hamas members were jailed by Palestinian forces in Jenin after the Gaza takeover, but most were freed after turning in weapons and pledging not to fight Abbas's government.
Most Fatah militants say they will go along with Abbas, but Islamic Jihad, hard hit by an Israeli crackdown, is a wildcard.
The Bush administration sees the deployment in Jenin as a chance to correct some of the shortcomings exposed during Abbas's initial security crackdown in nearby Nablus.
That operation improved security in Nablus but was undercut but frequent Israeli army raids and tight travel restrictions on Palestinian forces, as well as a shortage of supplies, prison space and barracks, Palestinian and U.S. officials said.
"One of the things we learned in Nablus is that there has to be better coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian forces," the senior U.S. official said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has emphasized "ultimate security responsibility will remain in Israel's hands" after the Jenin deployment, but the U.S. official said Barak had indicated the situation would be different to that in Nablus.
Compared to Nablus, the Jenin area has few Jewish settlements and Israeli checkpoints, reducing the rationale for an Israeli military presence, U.S. and Western officials say.
"Jenin may be a better place where we can make this work and then develop a model and procedures that can be applied in other places which are harder," the U.S. official said.
More than 600 men from the National Security Forces and 400 from Abbas's Presidential Guard are training in Jordan and due to return in late May for further instruction on new equipment.
The senior U.S. official said they might also be sent to Jenin if the forces there need back up. But Emran said that would not happen before August.
Emran said the idea was to base forces in Jenin that would mobilize across three areas in the northern West Bank, including Tulkarm, Tubas and Nablus.
To succeed, he said, Israel must provide freedom of movement to his men. "Having 30 security men with full freedom of movement is better than having 1,000 men who can't move around," Emran told Reuters at the Muqata.
He said Israel must also halt military incursions in the area. "It's impossible for a boat to be led by two captains," Emran said. "It will sink. It's impossible to control it."
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi; Editing by Matthew Tostevin