The United States on Saturday welcomed a call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
for fresh elections, expressing hopes it would quell factional violence and allow for a unity government that could work toward peace with Israel.
Tensions in the Palestinian territories are at their highest in a decade. Violence between Abbas's Fatah faction and their Hamas rivals has sparked fears of a civil war.
"While the elections are an internal matter, we hope this helps bring the violence to an end and the formation of a Palestinian Authority committed to the Quartet principles," White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said.
The Bush administration supports an effort toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians under the principles of the Middle East Quartet that includes the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
The peace process has been frozen since the aftermath of a win by militant Palestinian group Hamas in January parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged governments across the world to support Abbas after he called for early elections to break a deadlock with his Hamas rivals.
Blair, on a peace drive in the Middle East, said he believed Abbas was serious in saying he plans to organize new elections and that it was the duty of world leaders to back him.
"This is the moment for the international community to come behind him, to help build his authority and his capability, to deliver improvements in the living standards of Palestinian people but also in the progress that we all want to see on resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue," Blair said.
"Hamas at the present time is not prepared to be constructive," he told reporters after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
Western governments have shunned the Islamist movement because of its refusal to recognize Israel. Abbas is from the secular Fatah movement of the late Yasser Arafat, which formally recognized Israel in 1993.
Abbas said on Saturday parliamentary and presidential polls should be held at the earliest opportunity, but appeared to leave the door open to the ruling Hamas by saying renewed efforts should be made to form a government that could lift Western sanctions.
Hamas accused Abbas of launching a coup against its administration and said the president had no authority to call early elections.
"This is an issue for the Palestinian people to decide," said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were looking for a partner for peace, a government that recognizes the Quartet principles."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Reuters in an interview on Friday that the Bush administration is planning to ask the U.S. Congress for tens of millions of dollars to strengthen Abbas's security forces.
State Department officials have been discussing the request in recent weeks with key staff on Capitol Hill, trying to convince them the money will not reach Hamas.
President George W. Bush is under pressure from moderate Arab allies and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to make tackling the Israeli-Palestinian issue a priority. Some say progress in that effort could prove helpful in stemming the chaos in Iraq.