DAMASCUS - A moderate Muslim imam has been elected a new leader of Syria's fractious opposition to lead a popular uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad's regime.
"We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili (Shi'ite), Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people," imam Mouaz al-Khatib said, Reuters reported.
Khatib, a soft-spoken imam, was elected Sunday, November 11, to lead a new coalition of Syrian opposition groups after marathon talks in Doha.
His deputies will be Riad Seif, a veteran dissident who had proposed the US-backed initiative to set up an umbrella group uniting groups inside and outside Syria, and Suhair al-Atassi, one of the relatively few women with a leading role.
Delegates said a third deputy may yet be named from among ethnic Kurds.
Khatib said he would seek recognition and wider backing for helping take the country from Assad's regime.
"The first step towards recognition will take place at the Arab League," he told a news conference in Doha.
The body would then seek endorsement from Assad's Arab and Western foes in the "Friends of Syria" group and from the UN General Assembly.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, whose government hosted the talks, said he would press fellow Arab ministers to recognize the new Syrian opposition coalition.
"We will strive from now on to have this new body recognized completely by all parties ... as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," he said before arriving in Cairo along with Khatib.
Khatib, 50, was the imam of the ancient Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
He was jailed several times for criticizing Assad. He finally fled into exile this year.
More than 38,000 people have been killed and many tens of thousands more displaced in a 19-month uprising against Assad's regime.
The revolt against Assad began as peaceful protests calling for democracy and greater rights, but gradually turned to an armed struggle, pitting the Sunni majority against the president and his minority Alawite sect.
The election of the moderate imam to lead the opposition has won a showering praise.
"(Khatib) is from Damascus and is a famous man from there, said George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council that US and Qatari officials spent last week persuading to accept the creation of a more inclusive new body.
I think this is a serious step against the regime, and a serious step towards freedom.
Sabra also praised the choices of Seif and Atassi to the new body, titled Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.
"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."
Critics of the SNC had said it was too much influenced by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and too little open to minorities, including Alawites, some 10 percent of the population who fear a backlash if Assad is overthrown.
Mazen Adi, a prominent human rights defender and politician, also hailed the imam's election to lead the Syrian opposition.
"Alkhatib is a dynamic progressive Islamist, popular in Damascus and the rest of Syria," said Adi, who worked with Alkhatib before the revolution.
"He is not a trigger-happy Jihadist and he can play a role in containing the extremist groups."Turkey's foreign minister said the formation of the National Coalition meant the Syrian opposition was no longer divided.
"The friends of Syria... should support this agreement... There is no excuse anymore," Ahmed Davutoglu said.
"All those who support the rightful struggle of the Syrian people should declare clear support for this agreement and be more active."
France, a vocal backer of the Syrian opposition and which once ruled Syria, hailed the new coalition."France will work with its partners to secure international recognition of this new entity as the representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement in which he called the Assad government "the criminal regime in Damascus".