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Strong Showing for Hamas in Gaza Local Poll (REUTERS) By Nidal al-Mughrabi GAZA Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah 01/27/05 07:19 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7459409 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas made a strong showing in first-ever municipal elections held on Thursday in the Gaza Strip and seen as a test of strength between the Islamic militant group and President Mahmoud Abbas, an exit poll showed.

The poll by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Hamas was likely to take three of the four biggest districts in Gaza, including one where Abbas´s dominant Fatah movement had been expected to triumph.

Abbas has been trying to coax a cease-fire from militants spearheading a 4-year-old revolt and prevent a chaotic power vacuum in Gaza when Israeli troops and settlers withdraw this year under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s "disengagement plan."

The Hamas list declared victory and dedicated its triumph to slain leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. But reacting to the exit poll, a senior Fatah leader in Gaza, Samir al-Mashhrawi, told Reuters it was too soon to call the contest.

Voter turnout topped 80 percent for the poll in which candidates vied for 118 seats in the 10 municipal councils.

CELEBRATIONS IN RAFAH

In southern Gaza´s Rafah, a militant stronghold, Hamas members took to the streets, waving their theme-colored green flags and chanting slogans in celebration, witnesses said.

The pro-Hamas party list said initial results tallied by its own observers indicated that the group had won seven of the 10 municipalities. A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, praised the high turnout.

But Fatah sources disputed the exit poll predictions and said they thought they had won most of the races.

A State Department official had no immediate comment on the poll, but said: "We´ll follow this situation and see if it has any effect on President Abbas´ moves to control the security situation and to eliminate violence."

Abbas was elected to succeed Yasser Arafat as president by a landslide this month, but the vote was boycotted by Islamist groups opposed to peace accords with Israel and shown by opinion polls to have the support of about one quarter of the public.

Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, sworn to the Jewish state´s destruction, have won many hearts not only because they are at the forefront of the fighting but also for charities that help needy Palestinians in the absence of government support.

The Islamists also call for reforms of the Palestinian administration.

"The election is our way of getting rid of corruption," said Mohammed Abu Harbeed, a supporter of pro-Hamas candidates.

Hamas made a strong showing in municipal elections in the West Bank last month and the group may do even better in Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians live in often dire poverty.

Political analysts say that by taking part in the municipal elections, Hamas is also demonstrating its political sway -- and claim to a share of power -- ahead of Israel´s planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza.

Hamas is still debating whether to take part in parliamentary elections in July.

The Palestinian electoral commission expected results to be announced from the Gaza municipalities on Friday. (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah) (© Reuters 2005 01/27/05)


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