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Khaled Meshaal to step down as Hamas leader

By Kevin Flower and Kareem Khadder, CNN
January 21, 2012 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Khaled Meshaal has led Hamas since 2004 when his predecessor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, was killed in an Israeli airstrike.
Khaled Meshaal has led Hamas since 2004 when his predecessor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, was killed in an Israeli airstrike.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There have been rumors about Meshaal's intention to bow out
  • Hamas has been pressured to distance itself from the Syrian regime
  • Hamas PM Ismail Haniya has been mentioned as a possible replacement

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal plans to leave his post, according to a statement released by the group Saturday.

Meshaal informed the leadership body of Hamas, known as the Shura Council, that he did not wish be a candidate for the presidency of the organization, according to the statement, posted to a Hamas-run website.

Meshaal told the council the decision was made for personal reasons, but that he would continue to work in service of his people.

According to the statement, the Hamas leadership asked Meshaal to reconsider his decision.

Rumors of Meshaal's intention to step down had been circulating for days, but Saturday's statement was the first official comment on the matter from Hamas.

Meshaal has held the Hamas leadership role since 2004 after its then-leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

Word of Meshaal's intention not to seek another leadership term comes amid increased pressure from various Arab countries and Turkey for Hamas to distance itself from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

For more than 10 months, Syrian security forces have launched a brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters. The United Nations last month said well over 5,000 people have been killed in the unrest. Opposition activists said more than 6,000 people have died.

For years, Hamas has maintained its headquarters in Syria's capital, Damascus, and has received both monetary and military support from the al-Assad regime.

But in an apparent nod to changing regional politics, Hamas is distancing itself from its long-time patron.

In recent weeks Hamas personnel and their families have left Syria. In a recent regional trip, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya did not visit Syria.

It is not clear when the Shura Council will hold new elections or who might be considered for the leadership position. Haniya and Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk have been mentioned as possible replacements.

Hamas is an Islamist political movement based in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

It was formed in 1987 at the start of the first Palestinian intifada as an Islamic resistance movement to Israeli occupation. It took control of Gaza in 2007 after failing to maintain a coalition government with the Palestinian Authority, dominated by its rival Fatah.

The group's military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has claimed responsibility for terrorist operations including suicide bombings, car bombings, and rocket attacks in Israel, and attacks on Israel settlers who live in the West Bank and previously lived in Gaza. Those attacks have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians.

The United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

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