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Abbas victory brings new hope for peace

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke of peace Monday, his first gesture toward Israel since his landslide victory in presidential elections.

His remarks added to the sense of optimism felt in the region since Abbas' election Sunday. The victory, which capped a peaceful transition of power after the Nov. 11 death of Yasser Arafat, has raised hopes around the world that peace talks could soon resume.

"We extend our hands to our neighbors," Abbas declared late Monday after a meeting with international observers who monitored the election. "We are ready for peace, peace based on justice. We hope that their response will be positive."

Israel has welcomed Abbas' election, and even Palestinian militants expressed a willingness to work with him.

But hard-line Islamic groups raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote in the face of what appeared to be a low turnout, underscoring the sensitive task that Abbas faces as he tries to restart peace talks with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon welcomed Abbas' victory but said he will watch closely how hard he tries to subdue militants.

Sharon got a boost for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank this summer, with approval of a new coalition with the dovish Labor Party. His new government took office after narrowly winning a parliamentary vote of confidence. The alliance cleared the way for Sharon to push the withdrawal plan through Parliament.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said the two leaders would meet "soon," though they declined to be specific.

In Washington, President Bush congratulated Abbas and invited the new Palestinian leader to the White House _ an offer he never extended to Arafat.

Final results released Monday showed Abbas winning 62.3 percent of the vote, said Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Election Commission. His main challenger, independent Mustafa Barghouti, won 19.8 percent, while the remaining five candidates scored in the lower single digits.

However, Nasser declined to give a turnout figure, citing confusion over the number of unregistered voters who were deemed eligible to vote.

The questions about voter participation emerged as a possible point of contention between Fatah and hard-line groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

On Sunday, Palestinian officials said nearly 70 percent of 1.1-million registered voters cast ballots.

But because election officials opened the polls to all Palestinians above age 18 in the middle of the day Sunday, about 660,000 others could have voted.

Nasser said only 12 percent of those people voted, indicating that the true turnout might have been closer to 50 percent.

The militant groups, which have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel in the past four years, boycotted the election, though they did not try to disrupt it.

Mohammed al-Hindi, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, said the group is ready to work with Abbas. But he said the election did not represent the wishes of the Palestinian majority.

Abbas' victory held out the promise of a new era after four decades of chaotic and corruption-riddled rule by Arafat. Abbas promises to reform the government and the unwieldy security services.