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Hamas on Saturday condemned Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' decision to postpone parliamentary elections until November as a violation of a cease-fire agreement, but stopped short of pulling out of the truce.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group "rejects the decision to call off the election," adding that it was taken without any input from Hamas.

In a public decree, Abbas said he decided to postpone the July 17 poll until November to allow time to resolve a dispute over proposed reforms to the voting law.

"We consider this decision as a violation for all the Palestinian understandings and national agreements," he added, referring to the cease-fire.

Abu Zuhri also said the PA chairman ordered the delay because his ruling Fatah party is not prepared for the coming elections.

Hamas, which is fielding legislative candidates for the first time, appears poised to make a strong showing in the vote.

Islamic Jihad, a militant group that had planned to boycott the election, called on the Palestinians to strengthen national unity.

"We hope this decision will not harm the process of democracy," said the group's leader in Gaza, Nafez Azzam.

He also made no mention of withdrawing from the cease-fire accord.

First step in electoral politicsHamas is said to favor adopting a regional voting system, one that is believed to work to its advantage. Fatah is to favor a relative sytem of voting where population size determines the scope of parliamentary representation.

The move could stoke tensions between Abbas' Fatah party and the militant group Hamas, which had been poised to do well in its first electoral run. Hamas had reacted to earlier hints of a delay by accusing Fatah of maneuvering to cling to power.

Hamas entered electoral politics for the first time at the end of last year, scoring victories over corruption-tainted Fatah in a string of West Bank and Gaza town council polls since then and gearing up for the legislative vote in July.

But Fatah officials said last week that vote was likely to be put off because of discord within the party over reforms to the voting law sought by Abbas to give smaller factions like Hamas a better chance of gaining seats.

Abbas has encouraged Hamas, which is sworn to destroying Israel, to enter mainstream politics in hopes of shoring up a truce increasingly prone to violations and broadening his popular mandate for peace talks with Israel.

Fatah-Hamas strife is also brewing over a planned partial rerun of Gaza municipal elections after courts annulled Hamas victories following challenges by Abbas' party.

The rerun was slated for June 1 but was hastily postponed after Hamas threatened to boycott the vote.

A senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House believes the date of the vote is not as important as conducting free, peaceful and democratic elections when they do occur.

Abbas to appoint deputy following health scareAbbas said Friday that he plans to appoint a deputy after returning to the West Bank following a heart procedure.

"This is something very important. We consider it seriously and in the near future it will be offered to the legislature and the Palestinian cabinet to discuss it and they will take the necessary decision," he said.

Information Minister Nabil Shaath said Abbas has been considering appointing a deputy since his election in January and said Abbas is determined to win all necessary approval.

Abbas, 70, underwent an angioplasty in Jordan on Wednesday.

Prime Minsiter Ariel Sharon called Abbas on Friday, wished him a quick recovery from the surgery and reiterated an invitation to meet in Jerusalem on June 21. The chairman thanked Sharon and said he is looking forward to the meeting and to promoting the peace process.

The meeting is set to focus on the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit held in February and the coordination of the disengagement plan.