August 11, 2009 - 12:00am

Marwan Barghouti, jailed for life in Israel on charges of organizing the killing of Jews, was elected to a top post in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group on Tuesday, initial results showed.

Barghouti, 50, who denies the charges, is a popular and articulate figure among many Palestinians and was once seen as a successor to Yasser Arafat.

Some members of the Fatah "Old Guard" lost their positions when the faction elected a new executive body, the initial results showed after more than 90 percent of votes had been counted for the 18-member Central Committee.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria suffered the most serious defeat in the elections, failing to secure a place in the Fatah Central Committee. Queria's defeat came after he had enlisted hundreds of delegates to take part in the committee vote, in an attempt to strengthen his standing.

Abbas has said the party, holding its first congress in 20 years, needed to show disillusioned voters a new beginning.

Out of 10 "Old Guard" members seeking re-election, less than half succeeded.

The movement headed by Arafat for 40 years before his death wants to shed a reputation for corruption and cronyism that led in 2006 to a stunning election loss to its Islamist rival Hamas, which opposes peace with Israel.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a civil war a year later, splitting the Palestinian independence movement.

The Fatah congress began last Tuesday with about 2,000 delegates attending in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Most of its proceedings have been held behind closed doors.

Abbas, 74, was reaffirmed unopposed as leader in a show of hands that made it impossible to tell if anyone voted against him but critics say he is weak and that the congress may not strengthen his position.

Fatah is ready to negotiate a peace deal with Israel but it is struggling to reverse a decline in popularity among Palestinians.

Abbas has no vice-president and no natural successor waiting in the wings.

A controversial figure who won an executive post was Mohammed Dahlan, reviled by Hamas supporters over crackdowns he led against the group when he headed the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security service in the Gaza Strip in the 1990s.

Fatah is dominant in the West Bank, separated from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip by Israeli land.

Under international proposals the two territories would form a future Palestine in a peace deal with Israel, except that they are now governed by hostile rivals.


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