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Interim head of the PLO Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) vowed to crack down on armed groups in the territories before the scheduled January 9 election for a new PA chairman, but Abbas said that Israel must halt "aggressive" military action in order to help him.

"Steps will be taken to end the public display or show of arms," said Abbas in an interview with Reuters. "We have to move on to a new era. We will act firmly against anyone who violates the law so that we can make the citizens feel secure... There is no choice but to strengthen personal security, end the armed chaos and restore the Palestinian Authority's capabilities."

This sentiment was echoed by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who also pledged to act against internal violence. "The PA will do everything possible to overcome the chaos," Qureia said. "We will take steps to prevent armed men from disturbing the peace, and we will take action against anyone who breaks the law, in order to ensure security for our citizens in general and to ensure the proper conduct of the elections."

However, he added, "Israel must stop its operations in the territories so that we can restore order."

Abbas, who narrowly escaped injury on Sunday when militants fired at his entourage during a visit to a mourning tent for Yasser Arafat, has held a series of meetings over the last two days with the heads of the various Palestinian factions, in an effort to reach agreements on reducing the violence in the run-up to the chairmanship election, in which Abbas is considered a leading candidate.

Though he has consistently opposed the armed struggle against Israel, he told Reuters that he did not ask the armed organizations for a truce with Israel "directly." Instead, he said, "we call for calm within the framework of reorganizing the internal situation."

Another PA official explained that Abbas "warned faction leaders that if there is no calm, Israel might use this as a pretext to hinder elections with military action."

Hamas leaders insisted that a truce with Israel was not on the agenda in their talks with Abbas.

"We are talking only about internal quiet, not about a cease-fire with Israel," said senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar.

Palestinian sources said that during yesterday's talks, Abbas won verbal pledges from leaders of the armed Fatah groups, as well as from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to work to restore internal order.

Rashid Abu Shabak, head of the PA Preventive Security in Gaza, promised that his organization would also work to restore order. "This is a time of new beginnings, meant to give the Palestinian citizen security," he said. "We will prove to the world that we are an authority that respects itself and is capable of supplying security, which the Palestinian citizen currently lacks."

But Abu Shabak said that it was "too soon" to talk about a truce with Israel.

Another PA official said that all the armed organizations had "signaled opposition to a truce [with Israel] unless Israel reciprocates."

Under U.S. pressure to help the temporary leadership that has replaced Arafat gain control on the ground, Israel has indicated that it will limit military strikes to targeting "ticking bombs" - terrorists on the way to an attack. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out a cease-fire unless PA leaders actively fight terror.

Neither Abbas nor Qureia has yet indicated whether PA security forces, in addition to cracking down on internal violence, would also act against terrorists preparing to carry out attacks on Israelis, as required by the U.S.-backed road map for a Palestinian state.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will meet with Abbas when he visits Israel and the West Bank on Monday. Washington would like to see Abbas win a decisive victory in the January 9 elections, believing that this would give him the legitimacy he needs to end the violence and pursue peace with Israel. However, it is trying not to back him too openly, fearing that this would hurt his prospects.