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Iraqis Meet to Discuss Country's Political Future - 2003-04-15

Iraqis from both inside and outside of the country are to meet Tuesday to begin determining their country's political future. Meanwhile, coalition forces in Iraq are starting to shift their focus away from military operations.

U.S. officials are convening a meeting of Iraqi opposition groups in the southern city of Nasiriya to discuss post-war Iraq's political structure.

Secretary of State Colin Powell says the gathering is important, but as a first meeting, is not expected to produce major results. "I think most of the groups outside the country and the resistance understand the need for starting in this way, with a modest beginning, so that we begin to have a dialogue," he says.

Iraq's main Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, says it will boycott the meeting. It says the Iraqi people will not accept an administration imposed by foreigners.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it will be up to the Iraqi people to choose their leaders. "All I can say is that the United States government, and that includes the Pentagon, is not backing anybody for any role in Iraq," he says. "The Iraqi people are, over time, going to have to make those judgments, and I'm sure they will."

The focus on Iraq's political future comes as U.S. defense officials begin to scale back military operations in Iraq. They say the emphasis is shifting to objectives like hunting down fugitive leaders of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime and locating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Major General Stanley McChrystal, of the Pentagon's joint staff, says other key objectives include maintaining a stable environment for Iraq's new government and helping rebuild the country's infrastructure. "There will be a requirement for combat power for some period of time to maintain, or to establish that secure and safe environment. But clearly, the requirements for civil affairs, engineer organizations, military police, will be significant," says Mr. McChrystal. "And, in fact, that's designed into the force flow."

In Baghdad, American military engineers have begun working to re-start the city's main power plant, which Iraqi officials shut down nearly three weeks ago. Brigadier General Steven Hawkins says the city's power infrastructure has not been functioning at full capacity since the 1991 Gulf War. "It's been fragile for a long time," he says. "And we're going to bring it up to the best of our ability, so that people have power and they have water, and they have medical support."

The chaos in Baghdad streets also has been dying down. Muslim cleric Hossein Mustafa says he and other religious leaders have been using mosque loudspeakers to send a clear message that the looting has to stop. "We try to remind everybody, even the wives and everybody. The wives are essential in the house," says Mr. Mustafa. "They send a signal to the kids, to everybody, to their brothers, to their husbands, that what you are doing is against your religion."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration had more strong words Monday for Syria, warning Damascus not to provide safe haven for former leaders of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Secretary of State Powell said Washington will examine possible diplomatic, economic or other measures against Syria, if it fails to cooperate. Other officials have suggested the U.S. government could downgrade diplomatic relations with the Syrian government.

Damascus has denied the latest allegations.