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Palestinians turn out in large numbers in parliamentary elections

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Palestinians defied earlier predictions of electoral chaos Wednesday as large numbers turned out for the first legislative elections in a decade.

Several exit polls of uncertain reliability showed the ruling Fatah party in the lead and a strong second-place finish by the Islamist militant group Hamas, which was estimated to have garnered 36 percent to 42 percent of the vote.

Preliminary official results are expected Thursday, and they could give an early indication of how big a role Hamas will play in the next Palestinian government. While Hamas operates extensive social-welfare programs in Palestinian areas, it's also launched repeated terrorist attacks on Israel.

President Bush said Wednesday that the United States wouldn't deal with Hamas until the group renounced its call for the destruction of Israel.

"You're getting a sense of how I'm going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility," Bush told the Wall Street Journal. "And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you."

A strong showing by Hamas would raise more questions about the Bush administration's push for democracy in the Middle East, where Islamists—not moderate democrats— have made strong electoral inroads recently in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon.

The electoral participation of a group that's dedicated to Israel's destruction, serious infighting—including sporadic violence—among competing factions of the Fatah party and questions about how power will be shared had produced low expectations for the election.

But after weeks of campaign-related attacks and threats to disrupt the voting, election day ended without any major security problems in what many Palestinians described as a tribute to their nascent democracy. The Central Election Commission said that nearly 78 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters had cast ballots.

"We are on the dawn of a new phase of the Palestinian people," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said, speaking in Ramallah after the polls closed.

"We are very happy that the agreement among the armed factions not to bear arms in the course of voting has held. We are waiting with bated breath to see if it survives throughout the counting period," said Paul Adams, who led a group of 58 Canadian poll watchers.

Among those voting in Nablus was Munib Masri, the 73-year-old president of the Palestine Development and Investment fund, who flew in from meetings in Paris and opted to skip a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, so that he could cast his ballot.

"I feel today is very soothing," Masri said after he voted. "There is hope. I have lived my whole life with this conflict (with Israel) and I would like to see it end."

In the Gaza Strip, where voter participation topped 80 percent, the mood was calm in what many described as a "festival of democracy."

In Rafah, a Hamas stronghold, entrances to polling places were crowded with campaign workers handing out sample ballots and party-affiliated caps and scarves. Voters had to walk through virtual honor guards of Hamas supporters holding lime-green flags and Fatah supporters bearing yellow flags to get to the polls.

Hani al-Barahmah, 30, a civil engineer, led his 1 {-year-old daughter, Sultana, across the sandy, unpaved courtyard at a polling place inside a school. He said the Israeli army had destroyed his house in the nearby Yibna refugee camp, about 200 yards from the Egyptian border, in 2003 to clear a buffer zone in the area, which had been used to smuggle weapons and in sniper attacks on Israeli soldiers.

He declined to say how he voted, but wiggled a finger dipped in blue ink as proof that he had. "This is my right in a democracy," he said.

How to integrate Hamas into the government is a top concern. The United States and the European Union define the group as a terrorist organization and have threatened to withhold donor funding to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas dismantles its military wing. Israel has said it can't negotiate with a Palestinian government in which Hamas plays a part.

Hamas, which historically has boycotted Palestinian national elections, hasn't made its political plans clear. It could accept Cabinet positions and rule in a coalition with Fatah, or stay out of the government and opt instead to be an opposition presence in the Parliament.

"I think there is definitely a possibility for a coalition," said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas candidate from Rafah. "I prefer to be in the government. ... The first focus is on internal issues. People are suffering from an absence of law."

Like many voters, Yusra Abu Khadra, 40, of Rafah, thinks the best outcome will be a national unity coalition drawn from all the parties.

"We respect all the parties. They all struggled. They all have injured (members). They all have prisoners" in Israeli jails, she said.

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, where Hamas dominates the municipal council, Mohammed Abu Amsha, 40, said the town might be cleaner and more orderly since Hamas took over, but that this time he voted for Fatah.

"The city is clean, but your stomach is empty," said Amsha, who once worked in agriculture as a day laborer in Israel but has been unemployed for the last four years. As the founding party of Palestinian politics, Fatah, for all its shortcomings, still has a better chance of bringing prosperity, he said.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Mohammed Najib contributed to this article from the West Bank.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060125 Hamas Fatah

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