The Palestinian Authority on Thursday accused Iran and Syria of encouraging Hamas and other radical groups to establish a new leadership that would challenge the PLO's claim to be the "sole and legitimate" representative of the Palestinians. The PA is an organ of the PLO. The PA fears that the potential new leadership, which would be headed by Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, would be recognized by several Islamic governments that are unhappy with President Mahmoud Abbas. The PA is also worried because the idea of replacing the PLO is being backed by prominent Arab political analysts, newspaper editors and even veteran Fatah leader Farouk Kaddoumi. Abbas, who met with US Middle East envoy George Mitchel in Ramallah, warned that any attempt to create an alternative leadership to the PLO would "consolidate divisions" among the Palestinians. Mashaal on Wednesday surprised the PA by announcing that the current circumstances require the Palestinians to start thinking about the creation of a new leadership that would represent all Palestinians. The PLO was no longer the legitimate representative of the Palestinians "because of its role in deepening divisions among the Palestinians," he said. His declaration has won the backing of all the Damascus-based Palestinian groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command headed by Ahmed Jibril. Mashaal's statement has been interpreted by PA and Fatah officials in the West Bank as "the most serious challenge to the PLO since its founding." During the meeting in Ramallah, Abbas told Mitchell he was very worried about the role of Iran and Syria in the Fatah-Hamas conflict. Abbas said that he was keen on achieving "national unity" with Hamas and the other Palestinian groups. Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas also briefed Mitchell about Israel's settlement construction and its policy of "creating new facts on the ground" in the West Bank. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a senior Fatah official closely associated with Abbas, accused the Iranians and Syrians of meddling in Palestinian affairs. "This is cheap meddling in our affairs," he said. "They are inciting some sick people like Khaled Mashaal to reject national reconciliation and to go ahead with their plans to form an alternative leadership. But these attempts are doomed to failure." Another PA official said the Iranians and Syrians were now openly "conspiring" to undermine the PA leadership. "They are seeking to take advantage of the increased sympathy for Hamas on the Arab street following the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip," the official said. "We see this as a declaration of war on the legitimate representatives of the Palestinians." Hussein a-Sheikh, a senior Fatah operative in the West Bank, called for organizing protests against Mashaal's comments. "This is an Iranian-Syrian plot against the PLO," he said. "We will do our utmost to thwart it." Another senior Fatah official, Ziad Abu Ein, said Damascus and Teheran were seeking to "destroy" the Palestinian cause and to solidify divisions among the Palestinians. The PA believes that Qatar is also behind the call to establish a new Palestinian leadership. A PA official said the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera network had long served as a platform for Mashaal and Hamas. He also claimed that the station had been "inciting" against Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas by depicting them as traitors. A Fatah leaflet distributed in Nablus on Thursday lashed out at former MK Azmi Bishara for supporting the idea, alleging he fled Israel because of his involvement in financial corruption. The leaflet condemned all those who support Hamas as "mercenaries" working for Iran, Syria and Qatar. Three previous attempts to establish an alternative leadership to the PLO failed - largely because of the refusal of the majority of Arab and Islamic countries to recognize the new bodies. The first attempt occurred in 1976, when then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein encouraged a group of Palestinian officials to form the Palestinian Rejection Front. The second attempt was in 1983, when dissident Fatah officers Abu Musa Maragha and Abu Khaled al-Amleh, backed by Syria, established the Palestinian Salvation Front. The third attempt took place a few years ago when Hamas and other Damascus-based Palestinian groups established the Front of the Ten Palestinian Factions.