updated 11/22/2004 3:05:30 PM ET 2004-11-22T20:05:30

The ruling Fatah party on Monday chose former premier Mahmoud Abbas as its candidate to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority in Jan. 9 elections, a Palestinian official said.

Abbas, 69, Arafat's longtime deputy as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has already been named head of the PLO. If elected president of the Palestinian Authority, he would inherit two of Arafat's main titles. Arafat died Nov. 11.

Abbas served as Arafat's first prime minister in 2003. However, he resigned after just four months in power, frustrated with Israeli policy and Arafat's refusal to grant him real power.

However, Abbas faces challenges from a growing list of candidates. Among the most serious figures considering a run is Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah leader serving five life terms in an Israeli prison after a conviction in Palestinian attacks that killed five people.

The Fatah Central Committee, the movement's main decision-making body, picked Abbas as its nominee at a meeting in Ramallah late Monday, said Intissar al-Wazir, a member of the body. Members said all 13 delegates present voted for Abbas.

Another Fatah body must approve the decision, but members said that was all but automatic.

Barghouti demands a primary election among Fatah members to choose the candidate. Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, said after the decision that her husband would decide at the end of the month whether to run, but efforts were starting now to gather 5,000 signatures to enter his candidacy.

Barghouti, 45, appeals to younger Palestinians raised in the West Bank and Gaza, as opposed to Abbas, who returned from exile along with Arafat in 1994 and represents the old-time Palestinian leadership.

Israel has declared that Barghouti will not be released from prison.

Among others preparing to run are a billionaire industrialist and critics of the alleged corruption in the current administration.

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