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Abbas declared victor in Palestinian election

New president ready for 'difficult mission' en route to statehood

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Voting in a Palestinian refugee camp.

Mahmoud Abbas tops list of Palestinian presidential candidates.
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Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian elections

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Election officials declared Mahmoud Abbas the winner of the Palestinian Authority's presidential elections on Monday, positioning him to succeed Yasser Arafat in a new era that could lead to an independent Palestinian state.

Abbas faces tremendous challenges as the new Palestinian leader, including continued Palestinian-Israeli violence and the stalled Mideast peace process.

The former Palestinian prime minister said during the campaign that he wanted to meet soon with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the resumption of peace negotiations.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in East Jerusalem to monitor the vote, said Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, told him he endorses the international road map to peace "entirely." (Full story)

Carter said Sharon told him he hopes to meet with Abbas within days after the election.

The White House said President Bush called Abbas to congratulate him on his "strong victory" and invite him to Washington -- something he refused to do for Arafat, who died in November.

In the 10-minute phone call, Bush "recalled their previous visits very fondly," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Bush extended an open invitation to Abbas to visit Washington "when he felt it was a good time to come," and McClellan said the Palestinian leader "indicated he looked forward to coming back at some point."

Bush never invited Arafat to Washington because he considered him an obstacle to peace.

McClellan said Bush told Abbas he looks forward to working with him and expressed his commitment to "helping them tackle key issues like security, terrorism, economic growth and building democratic institutions."

According to McClellan, "The president said his vision was one of a day when he and President-elect Abbas and Israel's leaders could stand together and say, 'we have peace.' "

McClellan said Abbas thanked Bush for his support "and said it was important for all of us to seize this opportunity for peace."

The two leaders also discussed the upcoming British-sponsored meeting in London on Palestinian development, McClellan said.

The official election body, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, said Monday that provisional poll results showed Abbas garnering 62.3 percent of the vote.

Abbas' principal opponent, Mustafa Barghouti, had 19.8 percent of the vote.

Abbas declared victory late Sunday after exit polls gave him a commanding lead over his rivals.

Abbas dedicated his win to "my brother," a reference to Arafat, who died in November 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 make "all the necessary adjustments" to work with Abbas, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.

"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."

The elections commission called the election results provisional because of a large number of complaints and doubts about the accuracy of the voter registry, but regional and international leaders praised Sunday's balloting as paving new ground in the Arab world.

Palestinian leaders called the elections the most transparent in modern Arab history, and international observers said they could be the first truly democratic Arab elections.

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

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

Carter praised the election, describing it as "free, honest, open and without any violence of any kind."

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.

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

Abbas, a moderate serving as interim chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, would take the reins held by Arafat, the popular leader who died of an unknown illness at a French hospital 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.

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

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