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Syrian rebel group denies seeking power

Mohammad Raid al-Shaqfa told a news conference that the Muslim Brotherhood aims to unite the Syrian opposition.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Mohammad Raid al-Shaqfa told a news conference that the Muslim Brotherhood aims to unite the Syrian opposition.

BEIRUT — The exiled leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood denied widespread accusations by other prorebel political factions that the group is seeking to impose its will on other members of the country’s opposition.

The rare news conference on Monday by Mohammad Raid al-Shaqfa highlights suspicions that his movement has raised in an already fractured opposition. The fundamentalist group has a powerful donor network among members in exile and supporters in oil-rich Gulf countries, especially Qatar. Many in the opposition say the Brotherhood uses its support and money as key levers for influence.

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‘‘Our aim is not to tear apart but to unite the [Syrian] opposition,’’ Shaqfa told reporters in Istanbul, where he is based. He blamed accusations against his group on ‘‘lies and fabrications’’ that he said were spread by President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Some rebels say the Brotherhood is trying to control the uprising through the political opposition’s exiled groups, such as the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition umbrella bloc, marginalizing fighters inside the country from non-Islamist groups. They say the movement is positioning itself to take power once the war against Assad is won.

Tensions within the opposition rose last month with the election of Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister for the opposition. Some of his critics claimed the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated the choice of Hitto, a Syrian-born US citizen and a little-known figure prior to his election.

Among those who regularly attack the Brotherhood are veteran secular dissidents such as Kamal Labwani, who accuses the group of using money to curry favor on the ground in Syria.

Labwani and about a dozen other members of the Coalition suspended their membership a day after it elected Hitto, complaining of the dominance of the Brotherhood in the Coalition.

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‘‘We say with all honesty that we didn’t know Ghassan Hitto before he was nominated for the post,’’ Shaqfa said.

He also denied that the Brotherhood is positioning itself to grab power should Assad’s regime fall.

‘‘These are all lies, slanderous statements against the Muslim Brotherhood,’’ he said. ‘‘We are not after any gains and we do not seek power. We await the fall of this regime so that the people can practice their role in choosing their own leaders.’’

A senior member of the Coalition, Abdelbaset Sieda, said the Brotherhood feels misunderstood and worries that people are confusing the group with the ultraconservative Salafis and Islamist extremists who are now gaining prominence on the ground in the fight against Assad’s regime.

‘‘There is a tendency to lump everything together,’’ said Sieda, who is not a member of the Brotherhood. He added that the group has benefited greatly from its experience in exile and is committed to a pluralistic, democratic society.

The Salafis and Islamist extremists, on the other hand, want to create an Islamic state based in post-Assad Syria.

Inside Syria, activists reported that government warplanes carried out more airstrikes around the country. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s aircraft hit targets in rebel-held areas near the capital, Damascus, in the northern city of Aleppo, and in Homs in central Syria.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Monday’s airstrikes.

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