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Palestinian moderate Abbas claims victory

Israel says it is ready to work with new leader

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Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian elections

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas declared victory in the Palestinian presidential election late Sunday after exit polls gave him a commanding lead over his rivals.

Abbas dedicated his win to "my brother," a reference to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

"There is a difficult mission ahead -- to build our state, to achieve security for our people, to provide a good life for our people, to give our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state," Abbas said.

Israel is prepared to immediately make "all the necessary adjustments" to work with Abbas, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told CNN.

"The main challenge is still ahead for him," Olmert said. "Will he fight against the terrorists? Will he try to stop this bloody, violent war against the state of Israel? This is the main question. This is what interests us."

President Bush said: "This is a historic day for the Palestinian people and for the people of the Middle East." (Full story)

A poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found Mahmoud Abbas had 66 percent of the vote and his closest challenger, Mustafa Barghouti, had about 20 percent.

Official results are expected Monday morning, and the winner will face tremendous challenges, including stopping Palestinian-Israeli violence and restarting the stalled Mideast peace process.

Palestinian leaders called the election, which took place at 1,077 polling sites, the most transparent in modern Arab history.

Despite worries about potential violence among Palestinian factions or problems with Israeli roadblocks, Palestinians, Israelis, and international observers said the election went relatively smoothly.

Election officials reported about 65 percent turnout among the 1.8 million voters. Earlier they had reported only about 35 percent, and extended the voting by two hours.

Abbas, a moderate now serving as interim chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, would take the reins held by Arafat, the popular leader who died in November. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was the candidate of Arafat's Fatah party.

The 69-year-old once served as prime minister but quit the post, accusing Arafat of undermining his authority by refusing to give him control of the Palestinian Authority's security organizations.

"It has gone very well," Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Sha'ath told CNN. "The polling booths went extremely well and very strict in terms of procedures, very transparent and lots of observers."

Any Palestinian with a valid identification card, whether registered to vote or not, was allowed to cast a ballot.

In some places, there were problems with names on voter rolls. Some people who showed up to vote were not listed as voters or even citizens. Also, disorganization and confusion were reported in some places.

Some Palestinians complained of long lines at Israeli checkpoints en route to polling sites. But international observers said they saw no such problems in the West Bank.

And Sha'ath said Israel "never intervened near the polling booths or tried to coerce people to vote in a certain way or not to vote."

An 800-strong contingent of international observers, organized through the U.S. National Democratic Institute, was on hand for the election, along with 20,000 Palestinian observers.

In East Jerusalem, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, working as an election observer, reported chaos and confusion that he said left many Palestinians unable to cast votes. He contacted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the situation was sorted out, international monitors told CNN.

The Central Election Commission said in a statement that though polls opened without incident, "the Israeli authorities are not cooperating as agreed upon."

The CEC said Israel obstructed the media from entering Jerusalem and stopped a translator working for the commission at gunpoint as he tried to vote.

Israel denied the allegations, and the deputy prime minister noted that, at the Palestinians' request, he extended voting hours in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers its territory, though international law views it as occupied territory.

Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group listed by the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization, did not take part in the election. Other groups also sat out the vote.

One reason Palestinian leaders were concerned about turnout was that they want the winner to have the clear support of the Palestinian people.

"We want it to be a mandate that will put an end to any small group or minority trying to hijack Palestinian decision-making," Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told CNN.

Abbas: Democracy in action

After voting, Abbas said: "The democratic process is taking place, and is in good shape. If this proves anything, it proves that the Palestinians are up to participating in a democracy."

Abbas' confidence was not matched by Barghouti, who called on the president of the Palestinian Central Election Commission to look into what he called "two particular violations."

He said the ink used to identify which Palestinians have voted was easily removable and could result in multiple votes by the same person.

Barghouti, the only other of the seven candidates expected to draw a significant number of votes, also said a full-page pro-Abbas advertisement in the Al-Quds newspaper's Sunday editions was "a clear-cut violation of the election law."

CNN's Guy Raz in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ben Wedeman in Jabalya, Gaza, contributed to this report.

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