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Hamas On Verge Of Victory

The Islamic militant group Hamas said Thursday it won control of the Palestinian parliament and officials from the ruling Fatah Party confirmed the estimate, though Palestinian election officials delayed the release of preliminary official results.

The claim by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was based on reporting by Hamas activists who observed the counting in the polling stations, the group said. He said Hamas had won about 70 seats, enough for a majority in the 132-seat parliament.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, election officials and Fatah officials said the Islamists won a majority of the seats in the 132-seat parliament.

The Palestinian Cabinet submitted their resignations Thursday following the apparent Hamas victory in legislative elections, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's office said, setting the stage for the Islamic group to lead a new Palestinian government.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will deliver a televised address to his people after results of the Palestinian parliament election are announced Thursday evening.

The official results were to be announced in a news conference by the Central Election Commission at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) Thurday.

The resignations were in part a formality required after an election, but the timing of the move, hours before the release of official results, was surprising. The announcement from Qureia's office did not mention Hamas.

Under Palestinian law, Abbas must now ask the party that holds a majority in the legislature to form a new government.

Palestinian officials delayed the release of official results from the Palestinian legislative vote until the end of the day. Results, initially scheduled to be announced at 9 a.m., will now be released at 7 p.m., the Palestinian Central Election Commission said. It gave no reason for the delay.

Amid tight security and a sea of green and yellow flags, Palestinians turned out in record numbers Wednesday for their first parliamentary election in a decade and exit polls projected that the ruling Fatah Party would win the most seats, but showed that Islamic militants made a strong showing.

Voter turnout in the historic balloting was 77.7 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters, the Central Election Commission said. In the 1996 parliamentary election, turnout was about 75 percent.

One exit poll said the ruling Fatah Party captured 42 percent of the vote and the Islamic militant group Hamas finished a strong second, with 35 percent. The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Public Opinion, surveyed 18,000 voters and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Another exit poll by Bir Zeit University showed Fatah with 46.4 percent of the vote, with Hamas winning 39.5 percent.

A total of 8,000 voters in 232 polling stations were surveyed for the exit poll, which had a one-seat margin of error.

Before the election, pollsters had said the race was too close to call. Hamas made a stronger showing than the 30 percent that many had expected.

Most of the West considers Hamas a terrorist organization, reports CBS News correspondent David Hawkins but the group is popular because of its hard-line stance against Israel and because it runs

Long lines formed across the West Bank and Gaza as Palestinians — given a real choice for the first time — eagerly cast their ballots for the 132 parliament seats up for grabs.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who is leading the international election moniters in Palestine, told Hawkins bringing Hamas into the system may soften its hard-line positions.

"My hope and prayer is that this will be a moderating influence on Hamas," Mr. Carter said. "That they'll see with responsibility in a government itself that they will moderate their position and forego violence and terrorist acts and they will perform in a proper fashion."

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he is ready to resume peace talks with Israel, even if Hamas joins his government after the vote.

"We are ready to negotiate," Abbas told Israeli reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "We are partners with the Israelis. They don't have the right to choose their partner. But if they are seeking a Palestinian partner, this partner exists."

Even it didn't win outright, Hamas' strong showing placed the Islamists — responsible for dozens of suicide bombings against Israel — squarely inside the Palestinian political system for the first time.

Hamas' success has alarmed Israel and the West, although Abbas has argued that bringing them into the system will tame them, enabling peace moves to go forward. In an apparent sign of pragmatism, Hamas has not carried out a suicide attacks since a cease-fire was declared a year ago.

But its top parliamentary candidate, Haniyeh, said Hamas had no intention of laying down its arms after the elections as Abbas has said he expects. And another prominent candidate, Mahmoud Zahar, said his group is "not going to change a single word" in its covenant calling for Israel's destruction.

Palestinian voter Ibrahim Walid told CBS News correspondent Robert Berger (audio) he voted against Hamas because "They are religious. It shouldn't be a fanatic government." But a Hamas supporter said the group has changed from a militant group "to a political group."

Abbas, elected a year ago, will still head the Palestinian Authority regardless of Wednesday's results, but the voting will usher in a new Cabinet that could include Hamas members. Israel says it will not deal with Hamas until it disarms.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called it "a historic and significant day for the Palestinian people."

Under Palestinian law, the largest party would be asked to form a government.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Fatah is ready to "stand behind" Hamas if the Islamic movement wins.

The election marked the first time Palestinians have a clear choice between two political camps since Hamas boycotted the 1996 vote.

Hamas is expected to ask for service ministries — health, education and welfare — and to leave diplomacy, including contacts with Israel, to others. Hamas, which has long ruled out negotiations with Israel, has signaled some flexibility on the issue in recent days.