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Leadership fight divides Occidental shareholders: report

(Reuters) - Occidental Petroleum Corp chairman and former chief executive Ray Irani is pushing to replace the oil company's current CEO, Stephen Chazen, the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday, citing "investors and people familiar with the company's operations."

However, several big investors who support Chazen have considered the possibility of trying to vote some directors, including Irani, off the board, the newspaper said, citing "people familiar with their plans."

The debate over the leadership of the fourth-largest U.S. oil company has divided major shareholders ahead of the company's annual meeting on May 3, the newspaper said.

The boardroom drama comes as shares of Occidental have fallen 18 percent in the past year, compared with an 11 percent rise for California rival Chevron Corp and a 4 percent rise for giant Exxon Mobil Corp .

Occidental, in a brief press release on February 14, announced that it was searching for someone to succeed Chazen, 66, after less than two years in the top job.

Yet, earlier this month at an industry event in New Orleans, Chazen told a group of investors that he did not volunteer to leave, the newspaper said.

Chazen is only the third CEO at Occidental in half a century. Irani was named CEO in 1990 by Armand Hammer, a flamboyant tycoon who spent three decades building the company up from a small firm of just three employees.

Chazen and Irani found both themselves targeted over their high compensation, until a shareholder effort to take board seats sparked reform in 2010. Chazen ended up earning compensation worth $31.7 million in 2011, down from $38.1 million the year before, while Irani made $49.8 million in 2011, down from $76.1 million.

The 78-year-old Irani, who is scheduled to retire at the end of 2014, owns a substantial amount of Occidental stock, the Journal said.

Occidental's lead director, Aziz Syriani, said in a statement that the company's independent directors, and not Irani, were making decisions about Chazen's eventual successor.

"Any suggestion otherwise, or insinuation that Dr. Irani is guiding the process, is completely and flatly wrong," Syriani said in the statement, which Occidental provided to Reuters.

An Occidental spokeswoman had no additional comment.

(Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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