RAMALLAH, West Bank - Mahmoud Abbas declared victory in Palestinian presidential elections on Sunday after exit polls showed him winning by a wide margin, giving him a decisive mandate to renew peace talks with Israel, rein in militants and try to end more than four years of Mideast bloodshed.
The victory of the staid and pragmatic Abbas, who opposes violence and has the backing of the international community, was expected to usher in a new era, after four decades of chaotic and corruption-riddled rule by Yasser Arafat who died Nov. 11.
"There is a difficult mission ahead to build our state, to achieve security for our people ... to give our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state," Abbas said in an acceptance speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"I present this victory to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people and to our martyrs," Abbas said, referring to Palestinians killed in the conflict with Israel.
Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, has promised to reform the Palestinian Authority, overhaul the unwieldy Palestinian security services and quickly resume negotiations with Israel, stalled for four years.
"We, the Palestinians, are drawing our future with our own hands. We will be the symbol of democracy and freedom," said Aya Abdel Kader, 45, a lawyer voting at a Gaza City school.
President Bush, who has said a resumption of peace talks must be accompanied by sweeping Palestinian reforms, called Abbas' election "a historic day for the Palestinian people."
"Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza took a key step toward building a democratic future by choosing a new president in elections that observers describe as largely free and fair," Bush said in a statement issued two hours after polls closed.
Abbas' political objectives are the same as Arafat's: a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
After results of three exit polls were announced - giving Abbas up to 70 percent support - his supporters celebrated in the streets. In the West Bank city of Hebron, motorists honked horns and waved Abbas posters. In Ramallah, gunmen fired in the air.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expects to meet with Abbas soon, his aides said. Israeli officials said that in a gesture to Abbas, Israel plans to release some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, provided Abbas stop militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns.
"I think this vote shows a change in the Palestinian street" moving away from support of violence, said Sharon aide Raanan Gissin.
"We certainly welcome this and hope that from this mandate Abu Mazen will lead the Palestinian people on the path of reconciliation," he added.
Bush also said the United States will help Abbas and the Palestinian people address the challenges and help create two states, Israel and Palestine, side by side in peace. He said other countries, including Israel, must do their part.
Polls were open for 14 hours, two more than originally planned after the Central Election Commission extended voting until 9 p.m., citing logistical problems. One election official said the decision came amid heavy pressure from Fatah, which was concerned a low turnout could weaken Abbas.
At least 66 percent of 1.1 million registered voters cast ballots, election officials said, adding the figure was expected to rise, since unregistered voters also participated in the election. Final results were to be announced Monday morning.
Two of the exit polls gave Abbas at least 66 percent of the vote and a third gave him as much as 70 percent, while Abbas' main challenger, independent Mustafa Barghouti had between 20 and 25 percent.
The remaining five candidates scored in the low single digits. The polls had a margin of error of between three and five percentage points.
The election, the first presidential vote in nine years, proceeded largely without interruption. In one incident, gunmen fired in the air in an election office and in Jerusalem, voters complained of confusing arrangements.
Barghouti complained that the Central Election Commission had changed rules in mid-game, by extending voting by two hours and by allowing voters to cast ballots at any location, rather than where they lived or registered.
Analysts have said Abbas needs at least 60 percent support to resume negotiations with Israel. "He (Abbas) has a mandate from the voters," pollster Khalil Shekaki said of the exit polls.