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Moderate Islamic preacher expected to unify Syrian opposition groups

On Sunday, Syria's fractured opposition groups came together to form a unified organization, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Maath al-Khatib, a moderate Islamic preacher who has been imprisoned several times during the conflict in Syria, was elected president.

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He now lives modestly in Cairo, beset by back problems from a car bomb explosion which hit the secret police compound where he was a prisoner before he left Syria five months ago.

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"The cell had a floodlight that was on 24 hours to prevent me from sleeping. The good thing was that the cell was destroyed and the electricity was cut and they were forced to move me to another cell without lights," he told Reuters in Cairo.

Alkhatib, who advocated peaceful resistance to Assad's rule before the revolt, saluted "the women of Syria" after his election in Doha, in a nod to women opposition campaigners who instrumental in organising the first demonstrations in Damascus.

His vice president, Suhair al-Atassi, is leading woman campaigner who was also jailed in the revolt. His other vice-president is Riad Seif, an old comrade who played a key role in devising the new opposition structure.

Mouaz al-Shami, a grassroots opposition activist in Damascus, said Alkhatib's election was popular in the capital.

"I am against clerics in politics. We've seen what happened in other countries as a result of this. But Alkhatib is a terrific human being, and the street is welcoming him," Shami said.

"We cannot but bow to popular will."

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