- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Mahmoud Abbas kicked off his campaign to succeed Yasser Arafat, pledging yesterday to uphold the late Palestinian leader’s legacy and deliver on his promise of Palestinian statehood.

Mr. Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader and front-runner in the Jan. 9 elections, plastered Mr. Arafat’s picture on his campaign posters and peppered his campaign announcement with references to the iconic Mr. Arafat, hoping that their decades-long relationship — rocky though it was — will propel him to overwhelming victory.

Addressing a hall of hundreds of supporters, Mr. Abbas called on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Mr. Abbas said he favored a negotiated peace settlement and promised to respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

“We are choosing the path of peace and negotiation,” Mr. Abbas said. “If there is no peace here, there will be no peace in the Middle East or the rest of the world.”

The opening of the campaign, in which Mr. Abbas faces six challengers, came after the Islamist movement Hamas showed surprise electoral muscle in municipal elections held Thursday. Hamas is not fielding a candidate in the presidential race against Mr. Abbas, but its new domination of several town councils highlighted the violent group’s rising popularity against Mr. Abbas’ ruling Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Palestinian officials said final municipal election results would be delayed until today because candidates in two communities wanted a review. Incomplete results from the 26 communities that voted gave Fatah at least 14 races and Hamas nine.

In his speech, Mr. Abbas called for a moment of silence for Mr. Arafat and pledged fealty to the man who has come to symbolize Palestinian aspirations since his death Nov. 11.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Arafat once had a contentious relationship. Mr. Abbas resigned as Palestinian prime minister in September 2003, four months after taking office, because of conflict with Mr. Arafat. The two men did not speak again until Mr. Arafat fell ill.

Most of the speakers who introduced Mr. Abbas invoked Mr. Arafat’s legacy and praised Mr. Abbas’ commitment to follow Mr. Arafat’s path.

Israel and the United States shunned Mr. Arafat, accusing him of promoting terror attacks. But they have quietly supported Mr. Abbas, whom they see as a pragmatist.

Mr. Abbas’ stated goals mirror those of Mr. Arafat — and most Palestinians.

He repeated his promise to hold Palestinian parliamentary elections early next year and urged Israel to free all Palestinian prisoners, especially jailed leader Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah rival who withdrew from the election race under intense party pressure.

Meanwhile, human-rights worker Mustafa Barghouti, a cousin of Marwan Barghouti who is running a distant second to Mr. Abbas in opinion polls, launched his campaign by laying a wreath at Mr. Arafat’s tomb.

In new fighting yesterday, Israeli troops killed Thaer Abu Kamel, a militant leader from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to Fatah, by demolishing his hiding place, a West Bank home, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.

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