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Syrian group picks exiled minority candidate

Syria's main opposition group Sunday picked a secular Kurd as its leader after criticism that the former head was too autocratic and the group was becoming dominated by Islamists.

The opposition, hobbled by disorganization and infighting, is trying to pull together and appear more inclusive by choosing a member of an ethnic minority.

The opposition's disarray has frustrated Western powers eager to dislodge Syrian President Bashar Assad but unwilling or unable to send in their own forces to do it.

The choice of Abdulbaset Sieda as head of the Syrian National Council is aimed at achieving several goals:

*Under outgoing leader Burhan Ghalioun, criticism mounted that the group was dominated by Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Sieda is a secular.

*Sieda is also a Kurd, and his selection could be an incentive for Syria's minority Kurds to take a more active role in the uprising.

*Selection of a member of a minority group could counter criticism that under Ghalioun, the umbrella organization was too autocratic. Sieda is seen as a neutral consensus figure.

"This is clearly an opportunity, and there is clearly a need for a change," said Peter Harling of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.

However, key problems remain.

The Syrian National Council has only tenuous ties to the Free Syrian Army, which is doing most of the actual fighting against Assad's forces and is itself little more than a disorganized collection of local militias.

Sieda, 56, an expert on ancient civilizations, is a longtime exile who lives in Sweden, like his predecessor, who is based in Paris. The activists who are actually doing the fighting in Syria worry that if they succeed in deposing Assad, the exiles will swoop in and take over.

Ghalioun had presided over the council since its formation last August, but some Syrian dissidents pulled out after he repeatedly renewed his three-month term as leader.

Sieda said his priority would be to expand and restructure the council to include more opposition figures, particularly from Syria's religious minorities.

Many of Syria's estimated 2 1/2 million Kurds -- more than 10 percent of the population -- join Christians, Alawites and other key minorities whose fear for the future if Assad's secular regime collapses has deterred them from joining the uprising.

As the opposition was reorganizing, the death toll mounted.

The highest toll was in the city of Homs and surrounding towns, where 17 people were killed, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

The town of Qusair was a main target Sunday, where at least six people were killed.

Regime forces also shelled the city of Daraa and nearby villages, said Abdul-Rahman.