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Published: Monday January 6, 2014 MYT 1:40:02 AM
Updated: Monday January 6, 2014 MYT 1:40:58 AM

Former Syrian PM runs for president of exiled political opposition

Former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab talks with Arab League head Nabil El-Arabi (not in picture) during their meeting in Cairo February 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab talks with Arab League head Nabil El-Arabi (not in picture) during their meeting in Cairo February 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab is running for the leadership of the Western-backed political opposition in a bid to make the fractious rebel movement more credible ahead of political peace talks.

The Syrian National Coalition is seeking to strengthen its position ahead of talks dubbed 'Geneva 2' and scheduled for January 22, as its rebel forces contend with attacks from groups linked to al Qaeda as well as a newly formed and increasingly aggressive Islamic Front.

Hijab, who defected to Jordan with his family in August 2012, will run against incumbent Ahmad Al-Jarba, whose six-month term ended last month, the media office of the Syrian National Coalition said.

"He has a real chance of winning and his experience as Syria's prime minister will help us in the political process," one senior coalition member said before Hijab's candidacy was officially announced.

President Bashar al-Assad appointed Hijab, a former agriculture minister, as prime minister in June 2012 after a parliamentary election that authorities said was a step towards political reform but opponents dismissed as a sham.

The 47-year-old Hijab is from Deir al-Zor province in eastern Syria.

His defection prompted the White House to say the regime was crumbling from within, but almost a year and a half later government forces, backed by Shi'ite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, have pushed back rebels around Damascus and in central Syria.

More than 100,000 people have died and millions have been displaced in the almost three-year conflict.

Hijab was not a member of the coalition until Sunday when he replaced his representative, Abdo Hussam al-Din, in the group.

Elections were also set to take place for three vice presidents and a secretary general.

(Reporting by Dasha Afanasieva; editing by Jason Neely)

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