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Abbas claims Palestinian victory

Mahmoud Abbas, who opposes continuing violence against Israel, declared victory Sunday night in the election for a new president of the Palestinian Authority after two surveys of voters leaving the polls showed him winning by a large margin.

"We offer this victory to the soul of the brother martyr Yasser Arafat and to our people, to our martyrs and to 11,000 prisoners" in Israeli jails, Abbas, 69, told his supporters.

Honking horns, waving flags and firing guns into the air, supporters celebrated an expected victory. The strong margin, if it is borne out in final results, should help give the quiet, cerebral Abbas the ability to remake and reinvigorate the Palestinian Authority and to try to put an end to violence.

According to the voter surveys, released moments after the polls closed at 9 p.m., Abbas is expected to win the election with about 65 percent of the vote, more than 40 percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger in a weak field of seven. Official results are not expected to be announced until today.

In Washington, President Bush said the election is a key step toward the establishment of an independent and peaceful Palestinian state.

Bush, in a statement issued two hours after polls closed, called the election "a historic day for the Palestinian people."

"Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza took a key step toward building a democratic future by choosing a new president in elections that observers describe as largely free and fair," Bush said.

"The United States stands ready to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations," Bush said. "The new Palestinian president and his cabinet face critical tasks ahead, including fighting terrorism, combatting corruption, building reformed and democratic institutions, and reviving the Palestinian economy."

It was the first presidential election in nine years, made necessary after the death of Arafat on Nov. 11. The voting was judged by international observers to be generally free and fair, with little interference from Israel, which eased travel restrictions on Palestinians and largely halted military activity in the territories.

But there was concern about a turnout that was lower than expected on a chilly but sunny winter's day, and Palestinian election officials decided to keep the polls open two hours longer than originally planned.

The election officials first said that Israeli restrictions at checkpoints and confusion at Jerusalem polling stations were the reasons for the extension. But the announcement came after reports of low turnout in some cities, including Ramallah, where election workers at one polling place, Al Qarami School, said that only 30 percent of those registered had voted by 4:30 p.m. The officials then acknowledged that they wanted more people to vote, because only 30 percent of the 1.8-million or so eligible voters had cast their ballots by noon.

The officials also declared during the late afternoon that voters who faced travel difficulties because of security restrictions, and so could not make it to their home polling places to cast their ballots, as was originally required, would be able to vote at any polling place by showing an identity card.

The voting was extended last month for municipal elections and in 1996, too, when the last presidential vote was held. Then, as now, radical Islamic groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad called on their followers to boycott the vote.

One of the voter surveys estimated turnout at about 65 percent, but actual figures will not be available until today. In partial municipal elections last month in 26 towns and villages, turnout was 81 percent.

Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the candidate of the main Palestinian faction, Fatah, faced little real competition. His main challenger was an independent, Mustafa Barghouti, 50, a medical doctor and a human-rights campaigner.

Abbas was looking for a sizable popular mandate to provide him with the legitimacy and authority to make difficult internal reforms, to reorganize Palestinian security services and to negotiate with Israel.

Despite their boycott call, Hamas spokesmen made it clear on Sunday that they would work with an elected president. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, told reporters that Hamas could have run its own candidate if it had really wanted to undermine Abbas. "Our view is not to undermine," he said, but he insisted that armed resistance to Israel would continue, despite Abbas' call for a cease-fire.

Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, called the election a source of pride for Palestinians as he voted Sunday morning at Arafat's former headquarters in Ramallah, the Muqata. "This process is taking place in a marvelous fashion and is an illustration of how the Palestinian people aspire to democracy," he said. He urged women in particular to exercise their right to vote.

Barghouti, while noting some voting irregularities, including complaints that the ink put on voters' thumbs to prevent fraud could be washed off, also praised the election. "I felt my dream is coming true," he said. "This is a great step for the Palestinian people, a good test of our institutions and proof to the world that we can establish an independent state." He called the election "free, and I hope fair."

Ekram Quraan, a graphics designer monitoring the vote at a school in Ramallah, called the day historic. "For us, it happens once in a lifetime, so it's important," she said.

Waleed Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American, said: "This is a milestone in our lives, and hopefully the peace process will be reignited. Israelis always say that they have no partner for peace, and now we are electing a president, and there are no excuses anymore."

Michel Rocard, leader of the largest group of international observers, from the European Union, said there were few problems with the election despite Barghouti's complaints. There were some difficulties for voters in East Jerusalem, where Israel required Palestinians to vote in post offices, as if they were casting absentee ballots, given Israel's claim to sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Sens. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., and John Sununu, R-N.H., led a delegation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden called the election well organized and said it was "an important statement for the Palestinians and their pride and maturity, and it can change the world's attitudes toward the Palestinians after the death of Arafat."

If Abbas wins with a mandate, consolidates power and works to stop terrorism, Biden said, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza could be the beginning of a process, not an end. "I don't know if there's a stop in this," he said. "The process could dictate the outcome. But all this is for naught if Abu Mazen can't end the intifada and control terrorism."

Sununu said, "It's a democratic election in the Arab world, and that in itself is somewhat historic." An elected, post-Arafat leadership will have "a new level of credibility to talk to the Israelis and impose change and reorganization of the security forces, so there's a reason to be optimistic."

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said: "It has been a very good day. The moment is historic." He promised further European aid to the new leadership.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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