By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Syria and Iran are planning to run for a spot on the U.N. Human Rights Council later this year, U.N. diplomats told Reuters on Wednesday, despite criticism from watchdog groups about widespread rights abuses in both countries.

The General Assembly's annual elections for the United Nations' 47-nation Geneva-based human rights body will be held later this year in New York. There will be 14 seats available for three-year terms beginning in January 2014.

From the so-called Asia group, which includes the Middle East and Asia, seven countries - China, Iran, Jordan, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam - are vying for four seats, U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

One diplomat predicted that Syria and Iran would fail in their bids to join the U.N. rights watchdog when the 193-nation General Assembly votes in the fall, while another said the upcoming election would be a "comedy."

Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, a Geneva-based advocacy group that monitors the work of the United Nations, said "countries that murder and torture their own people must not be allowed to become the world's judges on human rights.

"Because both regimes were recently elected to other U.N. human rights panels — Iran on the women's rights commission, and Syria on UNESCO's human rights committee — we cannot take anything for granted," he added.

"Syria is certainly less popular now, but Iran currently heads the largest U.N. voting bloc, the non-aligned movement," Neuer said. "We need to fight these candidacies."

Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch said: "Syria's candidacy, if maintained, would be a cruel joke, but would almost certainly be met with a resounding defeat."

"Iran too falls far short of the most basic standards expected of Human Rights Council members and sticks out even in an overall disappointing pool of candidates in the Asia group, with deeply problematic contenders such as Vietnam, China or Saudi Arabia," Bolopion said.

Syria attempted to run for a seat on the rights council in 2011, but withdrew due to pressure from Western and Arab states. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels are locked in an increasingly sectarian civil war that has killed as many as 100,000 people, according to U.N. figures.

Iran withdrew its bid for a seat on the rights council amid growing criticism of what one rights advocacy group said was Tehran's "appalling human rights record."

Syrian and Iranian diplomats in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

Neuer said that other candidates with questionable human rights records include Algeria, Chad, Cuba, China and Russia.

Rights advocates have successfully mounted campaigns against other candidates for the Human Rights Council in the past, including Belarus, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan.

Last year the United States was re-elected to the rights council. Washington has often criticized the council for what it sees as unfair singling out of Israel while ignoring severe rights abuses by other countries.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Stacey Joyce)