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A major coalition of Islamist rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has denounced Al-Nusra Front's pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda, urging insurgents to unite behind moderate Islam.
"When we in Syria launched our jihad (holy war) against the sectarian regime, we did not do so for the sake of allegiance to a man here or another there," said the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) in a statement late on Thursday.
It also rejected "imposing anything on (Syria's) fighters and the people that they were not willing" to accept, said the statement posted on Facebook.
The SILF comprises some 20 rebel groups, and is represented in the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army's command council.
It includes Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Islam and the Farouk brigade, which are among the opposition's most prominent insurgent forces.
The statement followed a raging debate among rebels and activists over a surprise announcement by Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani of allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"We have no need for imported ideologies or a new understanding of Islam," said the SILF, in an unequivocal attack on Al-Qaeda extremism.
"We should not be chasing power or positions," it added, criticising Al-Nusra for "putting the cart before the horse" by prematurely adopting a call for an Islamic state in Syria.
It also lashed out against a reported merger of Al-Nusra with Al-Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq, announced by the latter's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The group was "surprised and dismayed" at Baghdadi's statement, said the SILF, saying it learned of it "through the media".
"It does no service to our people or to our (Islamic) nation to pledge allegiance to those who know nothing about our reality, while most of our cities are occupied (by Assad's forces) and criminality continues to rage," it said.
The SILF also said the recent announcements only serve to "sow conflict and dissension among fighters' ranks at a difficult time", and that insurgents should "unite... under the flag of moderate Islam".
The Al-Qaeda controversy filtered into chants at protests across Syria on Friday, whose unifying slogan was: "Syria is too strong to be divided."
In Kafr Nabel in the northeast, often referred to as "the conscience of the revolution", protesters held up a sign that read: "Our revolution is not against a regime as such, it is against the attack on reason and oppression... whatever form it takes."
In the rebel-held district of Bustan al-Qasr in Aleppo city in the north, protesters took to the streets holding up a sign that read: "The Syrian people will decide the kind of state they want and its future."
In the city's Al-Katergi district, demonstrators held a sign reading: "God put us on this land, and we won't allow anyone to impose his tutelage over it."
Friday's chants contrasted with those raised in December, when the United States classed Al-Nusra Front as a "terrorist" organisation and dissidents organised demonstrations under the slogan: "We are all Al-Nusra Front."
But Al-Nusra still has some supporters such as those in Binesh, in the northwestern province of Idlib, who held posters including "The Islamic people want an Islamic caliphate."