JERUSALEM - Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia promised yesterday that Palestinians would hold a general election for a new president within 60 days, as mandated by law.
"The presidential elections will be held before Jan. 9," Qureia said, speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where longtime leader Yasser Arafat was buried Friday at a funeral thronged by a chaotic crush of mourners.
Qureia added that the precise date for balloting would be set in a meeting by the Palestinian leadership.
After Arafat fell seriously ill and was airlifted to a French hospital Oct. 29, the Palestinians pledged to act in accordance with their Basic Law, the equivalent of a constitution. The provision calls for the head of the Palestinian parliament to act as president for a maximum of two months.
The holder of that position, Rawi Fattouh, was sworn in as acting president within hours of Arafat's death. Fattouh is a little-known figure whose influence is unlikely to outlive the mandated period as a figurehead.
Close Arafat associates, chief among them the former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, have emerged as the core of the Palestinians' interim leadership. Qureia has been tapped to run day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government body over which Arafat presided.
But other challengers are jockeying for position. One is jailed militia leader Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic and popular figure. A candidacy by Barghouti - let alone a victory, which polls forecast as likely - would leave Israel in an extremely awkward position.
Barghouti is serving multiple life sentences in connection with plotting attacks against Israelis during the four-year-old intifada, or uprising, and Israel so far has ruled out early release.
The Palestinians have begun to demand that Israel ease military restrictions on civilians' movement within the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to facilitate campaigning and voting.
"The international community, particularly the United States, should exert pressure on Israel to withdraw its forces and not enter Palestinian cities ... so we can proceed with preparations," said former Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeineh.
Israel has said in the past that it will not accept constraints on army activities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians have said the Israeli military presence did not permit them to hold elections, although Arafat himself also was reluctant to agree to balloting.
Even though the late leader almost certainly would have won a general election, he did not want militant groups like Hamas to win elections for municipal offices that would have been scheduled for a vote at the same time.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.