Interim Prime Minister Elected By Syrian Opposition

Syria's main opposition group elected a naturalized American citizen as the first prime minister of their interim government. Ghassan Hitto is expected to pick a Cabinet in the next two to four weeks.

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Syria's opposition coalition in exile has elected a prime minister who, until recently, hailed from Texas. The new leader is charged with putting together an interim government to oversee rebel-held areas of the country. After months of infighting, the coalition selected an information technology executive to do the job. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Istanbul on the challenges he'll face.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Until recently, 50-year-old computer scientist Ghassan Hitto was not considered a frontrunner for the interim prime minister position. In fact, the head of the coalition, Moaz Khatib, and powerful backers such as the U.S. resisted the idea of naming an interim government at all at this point. But other supporters, such as Turkey, and especially Qatar - which has provided extensive support to rebel fighters - pushed hard for the vote, and they got it, with Hitto beating out a former Syrian agriculture minister for the post.

Hitto rose in prominence among opposition figures after he left his job in the U.S. to move to Turkey and devote his time to supplying aid to Syria. When Moaz Khatib suggested that negotiating with the government might be possible, Hitto staked out the opposite position, opting decisively for arms struggle in this campaign video posted to YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

GHASSAN HITTO: (Through translator) There is no way to have any negotiation with a regime that is killing so many people and destroying our country. The only way to stop this bloodshed is for Bashar al-Assad to go. Bashar al-Assad must go if we are to bring stability to our country and the region so we can start to rebuild our country as our people want it to be.

KENYON: Hitto brings some political baggage to the job. Born in Syria, he's a naturalized U.S. citizen who's studied, lived and worked in the U.S. for years, leaving him vulnerable to the common criticism that the coalition is dominated by outsiders. But at the coalition meeting yesterday, Free Syrian Army head Salim Idris threw his support behind the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SALIM IDRIS: We in the Free Syrian Army look to the government as a political umbrella for us in our struggle and in our fight against the dictator regime in Damascus.

KENYON: The dictator regime, as Idris calls it - known as the Syrian government to its supporters, including Russia, China, Iran and others - continues to view the opposition as foreign-funded terrorists and is deploying its superior firepower without hesitation. The U.S. and others condemned Damascus for yesterday's airstrikes inside the Lebanese border, not the first time the conflict has spilled beyond Syria's boundaries.

The Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, declared that it had targeted the Damascus airport again, and mortars landed near one of Assad's presidential palaces in the Syrian capital. As interim prime minister, Hitto's first task will be to name an interim government, a process that could be subject to some of the same infighting that delayed the vote on the prime minister.

Then the opposition government will have to demonstrate that it can improve the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid and services to rebel-held parts of Syria. Where the new government goes from there remains an open question. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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