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Iraqi Opposition Groups to Meet Again in 10 Days - 2003-04-15

The focus in Iraq is shifting from the battlefield to the conference table, as Iraqi exile groups open discussions on the future of the country. Meanwhile, U.S. military officials are continuing their search for weapons of mass destruction.

For the first time, former Iraqi opposition groups came together to discuss the future of a free Iraq in the southern city of Nasiriya. The U.S. sponsored talks ended with an agreement to reconvene in 10 days.

U.S. officials at the meeting said they had no intention of ruling Iraq and urged the various factions to cooperate. Some of the Iraqi speakers expressed the hope that Iraq's next government will be based on the rule of law. They also appealed to coalition forces for more help to address problems with security, power, and water.

Thousands of Shiite Muslims took to the streets to demonstrate against the meeting, which was boycotted by Iraq's main Shiite group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq.

U.S. and British officials say the demonstrations are proof that Iraqis feel secure enough to express their political views.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke to reporters at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar saying, "It is a start and I am glad that politics has broken out, that there is local opposition, that these Shias feel able to express their opinions. Under the Saddam regime if they had expressed opinions like that they would have ended up in the torture chambers in Basra or have ended up dead."

On the military front, U.S. officials say they are pressing the search for weapons of mass destruction throughout Iraq. U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters in Qatar that the coalition has committed an entire artillery brigade, several thousand soldiers who are specially trained, to the task of finding chemical and biological weapons.

"We remain convinced there are weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq, and we remain unwavering in our view of that," he said.

General Brooks said that while coalition forces continue to hunt down pockets of resistance, the military mission is shifting, more and more, to helping with humanitarian needs and restoring Iraq's infrastructure, especially power and water.

There are some signs that Baghdad is beginning to return to normal as some shops re-open. But VOA Correspondent Laurie Kassman, who is in the Iraqi capital, said there are plenty of reminders that the situation there is far from routine.

"But I think it may be slightly premature to say that life is back to normal. As I say, there has been a lot of sporadic shooting through the nighttime. We hear it even at the hotel where we are in a fairly safe neighborhood. You hear gunfire punctuate the night and early morning hours," she said.

Finally, some British conservationists and experts from the United Nations will head to Iraq as soon as it is safe to do so to help restore the country's cultural heritage, after museums there were plundered by looters in the wake of Saddam Hussein's ouster from power. The United States has also pledged to take a leading role in protecting Iraqi antiquities after complaints from local Iraqis that coalition forces did not do enough to prevent precious artifacts from being looted.