US President George W. Bush said Monday he would invite Palestinian president-elect Mahmud Abbas to Washington for talks and linked the success of the Palestinian vote to his hopes for Iraq later this month.
"I offer my congratulations to Abu Mazen. I look forward to talking to him at the appropriate time. I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here," Bush told reporters at the White House.
Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, scored a landslide victory in Sunday's election to find a successor to the late Yasser Arafat. Bush had refused all contact with Arafat, accusing him of doing too little to prevent attacks on Israel by radical groups.
"This is a man who has been elected by what appears to be a good-sized vote," said Bush. "I'm heartened by the elections."
Later in the day, Bush telephoned Abbas to congratulate him on his victory and reaffirm his commitment to helping Palestinians create a "free and democratic" state as well as "tackle key issues like security, terrorism, economic growth and building democratic institutions," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Abbas visited the White House as the Palestinian prime minister last year. But he stood down a few months later following several disagreements with Arafat.
The US leader backed a conference being organized by Britain on March 1-2 on Palestinian security and political and economic reforms. The conference was "aimed at helping the Palestinians develop the institutions necessary to support Abu Mazen's vision of a peaceful, active, vibrant state to become reality," he said.
Bush also took the opportunity to link the success of Sunday's vote to the Iraqi election on Jan. 30 and said the two events would make 2005 "an extraordinary year."
"In the first month of a new year, there will be an election in the Palestinian territory and there will be an election in Iraq. Who could have possibly envisioned an election in Iraq at this point in history? And yet we're going to have an election.
"And I'm sure there are a lot of people who are incredibly excited about the thought of having an election in Iraq inside the Iraqi territory -- except for a handful who want to stop democracy -- because they understand what election means.
"And so as a democrat, as a person who believes in democracy -- a Republican democrat, I might add -- as someone who believes that everybody has a right to live in a free society and everybody wants to live in a free society, the month of January 2005 is an extraordinary month."
But for the Bush administration, the victory of Abbas and the election of a moderate Palestinian leadership is the first step in its efforts to relaunch the Middle East peace process. Bush promised after his election victory in November to make this a foreign policy priority.
The US leader said he believed Israel had contributed to the success of the Palestinian election. Both sides still have heavy "responsibilities" to get the process back on track.
It will be "very important" for Israel to carry out its pledge to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, Bush said.
"It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side by side in peace; and that, as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions."