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Soft-spoken preacher Mouaz al-Khatib is chosen to lead new united Syrian opposition

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Mouaz al-Khatib has been named head of the National Coalition of Forces of the the Syrian Revolution and Opposition.

Activist preacher Mouaz al-Khatib has been elected as the first leader of a new Syrian opposition umbrella group that hopes to win international recognition and prepare for the overthrow of President Bashar Assad.

Khatib, a former imam at the famous Umayyad mosque in Damascus, was voted as president in a poll in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Sunday.

Riad Seif, who proposed the initiative to form the new group, and female activist Suhair al-Atassi were chosen as deputies.

Delegates, who had struggled for days to find the unity their Western and Arab backers have long urged, said the coalition would ensure a voice for religious and ethnic minorities and for the rebels fighting on the ground, who have complained of being overlooked by exiled dissident groups.

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Khatib, an Islamist moderate who fled Syria earlier this year, is a soft-spoken preacher who reached out to minorities early in the revolt. He once made a speech in the conservative Sunni town of Douma, flanked by a prominent Christian and a well-known Alawite.

'Famous man'
Minorities, including Assad's Alawi sect, have largely backed the authorities during the revolt, fearing that Islamists from the Sunni majority will take over - fears fanned by Assad.

"(Khatib) 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," said George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council that U.S. and Qatari officials spent last week persuading to accept the creation of a more inclusive new body.

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

Burhan Ghalioun, a former head of the old Syrian National Council, praised the new coalition, telling the New York Times: “I think the difference will start to show right away on the ground as the people will feel that there is a political power that represents them, and one body that unites its opposition. [Khatib] is a national figure and symbol since the beginning of the revolution.”

The new organization has been titled the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, although Al Jazeera's Mohamed Vall reported that the name was likely to change again to avoid confusion with the old body when reduced to its acronym of SNC.

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Khatib will automatically become the focal point for opposition activities in a rapidly developing conflict in which Washington and its allies have been concerned that a sudden collapse of Assad's rule could see anti-Western militants benefit from chaos to seize control of a large and pivotal country at the heart of the Middle East.

The new body will seek to become the sole address for military and humanitarian aid to Syria, though the United States has made clear it will not shift from its position of no direct military intervention.

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Officials from the United States and Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate whose oil and gas wealth has helped fund the 20-month-old uprising, had lost faith in the SNC, which they saw as disconnected from events on the ground and riven by disputes.

Qatar and Turkey, which has also been at the forefront of international efforts to bring down Assad, issued a call for full international backing for the new body.

"Trust us that we will strive from now on to have this new body recognised completely by all parties... as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim told reporters after Khatib was elected in the Doha Sheraton hotel.

Syrian rebels claim to have seized a key crossing point along the Syria-Turkey border, which could create access point for weapons and fighters to enter the country and an exit point for refugees. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.

The Arab League is expected to allow the group to take over Syria's representation on that inter-governmental body - from which Assad was suspended. Efforts to win wider international recognition, including at the United Nations, could follow.

Turkey's foreign minister said the formation of the National Coalition meant the 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."

Delegates said there would be specific representation for women and ethnic Kurds as well as for Christians and Alawites, but some had not yet fully signed on.

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

Under the agreement outlined in Doha, the SNC will be among groups to have seats in an assembly of 55 to 60 members under a president, two deputies and a secretary general, all of whom may be elected later on Sunday. The SNC will have up to 22 seats.

Delegates said the coalition would try to form a 10-member transitional government in the coming weeks - along the lines of Libya's Transitional National Council, which was formed during last year's uprising and took power when Muammar Gaddafi fell.

Rebels have been at the mercy of Assad's air force, putting them at a critical disadvantage. The conflict has cost more than 38,000 lives and threatens to spill into neighboring countries. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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