Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat set an example on Saturday by registering to vote for the forthcoming elections.

 

Presidential and legislative elections are nearly four years overdue.

 

Israel's occupation of areas handed over under the 1993 interim peace deal is officially blamed for the delay in elections.

 

"For some two years they [Israel] have not enabled us to carry out our municipal, legislative, or presidential elections," Arafat said at his partially destroyed headquarters in the West Bank city of Ram Allah.

 

Palestinian cabinet minister Saib Uraiqat added: "I urge the international community, especially the United States to help us in creating the atmosphere to hold free and fair elections."

 

Officials say they intend to start by holding elections for 38 municipal councils in November, a vote expected to be a test of strength between resistance groups and Arafat's Palestinian Authority ahead of an Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip next year.

 

Election date

 

A date for presidential and legislative elections would be set after the municipal vote, scheduled to be held gradually over a year.

 

The municipal elections would be the first since the Palestinian Authority took control in 1994.

 

Palestinian legislators have been pressing Arafat for a municipal vote to replace mayors appointed by the authority and clean up alleged corruption.

 

The Palestinian Central Elections Committee said it has opened 1000 voter registration centres throughout the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, as well as the Gaza Strip, where 3.5 million Palestinians live.

 

Election officials said the voter registration drive would last five weeks.

 

The first and only Palestinian elections were held in 1996 and new elections should have taken place in 2000.