Activist preacher voted head of Syria opposition group

DOHA Sun Nov 11, 2012 4:05pm EST

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DOHA (Reuters) - Activist preacher Moaz al-Khatib was elected as the first leader of a new Syrian opposition umbrella group that hopes to win international recognition and prepare for a post-Assad Syria, in a poll counted before reporters on Sunday.

Veteran opposition figure Riad Seif, who proposed the U.S.-backed initiative to set up an umbrella group of opposition groups inside and outside Syria, was elected as deputy president along with Suhair al-Atassi, a well-known female activist.

Opposition figures had struggled for days in Doha to find unity, under heavy pressure from U.S. diplomats and officials from Qatar, which has bankrolled much Syrian opposition activity since an uprising began last year.

Khatib, a former imam at the famous Umayyad mosque in Damascus, was imprisoned several times for criticising Assad's rule before he left Syria for Cairo this year. Delegates said he had been the only candidate for the post of president.

"He is from Damascus and is a famous man from there. I think this is a serious step against the regime, and a serious step towards freedom," Syrian National Council leader George Sabra said. He also praised the choices of Seif and Atassi.

"They are very good representatives of this project. They are activists in our revolution. Most of them have made large sacrifices for the people inside the country."

Businessman Mustafa Sabbagh was voted as general secretary, and delegates said a Kurd could be chosen as a third deputy president in coming days.

Opposition backers had lost faith in the SNC, the group that has led efforts to organise opposition to Assad outside Syria, accusing it of being ineffective against Assad, disconnected from events on the ground and riven by personal disputes.

The new group has said it will be more inclusive, encompassing rebels on the ground as well as minorities and women.

Islamists, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood, were seen as the most dominant group in the SNC and are expected to be a strong voice in the new group too.

The coalition hopes to win international recognition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and form a government-in-waiting like the Transitional National Council that took over in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi's fall last year.

(Reporting by Rania El Gamal and Regan Doherty; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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