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US Says Hamas Still Terrorist Group Despite Local Election Win

The United States Friday said it still considers the Palestinian militant group Hamas a terrorist organization despite its victory in local elections in Gaza. The State Department said the group has nothing constructive to bring to the political process as long as it maintains "a course of violence."

U.S. officials are downplaying the political significance of the election outcome in Gaza, saying that what matters in Palestinian affairs occurs at the level of the Palestinian Authority, which is now run by mainstream politician Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for scores of terror attacks against Israelis and listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization, won two-thirds of the seats in voting for Palestinian municipal councils in Gaza.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher pointedly did not welcome the election outcome, praising instead the peaceful conduct of the polling and what he said was excellent cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials in facilitating free movement for voters.

Mr. Boucher said despite its electoral role, the United States continues to view Hamas as a terrorist organization and believes that it has nothing constructive to bring to the political process as long as they "maintain a course of violence:"

"What matters is what people actually do," he said. "Certainly we have not changed our view of Hamas as an organization. We think it needs to be put out of the terrorism business. And that remains very clear for us. But as I said, I think the test right now for the Palestinians, if they want to achieve a Palestinian state, if they want to achieve their national aspirations, is to see whether they will move forward and end the violence, take active steps to end the violence, and create the institutions that can support a state."

A senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters said the Bush administration is being deliberately low-key about the Gaza elections, avoiding sharp rhetoric he said might inadvertently help Hamas.

He said the newly-elected Hamas officials are at the municipal level and not people that U.S. diplomats will have to deal with.

He said what matters in Palestinian affairs happens in the Palestinian Authority, and that since taking office earlier this month, Mr. Abbas and his colleagues have taken "resolute action" to try to curb terrorism.

In a New York Times interview published Friday, President Bush said Mr. Abbas has "the will of the people behind him" and has shown strength in the early phases of his administration.

Mr. Bush said the new Palestinian leader is sending assurances that he will put a 100 percent effort into protecting both Israelis and Palestinians from terrorism and said "to me, that's an impressive start."