Former members of Iraqi opposition groups, joined by American officials, met in southern Iraq in hopes of beginning a process that will lead to the formation of a new, interim Iraqi government. The meeting ended with a statement saying the future government of Iraq must be democratic and respect the rights of all Iraqis.
About 80 Iraqis, representing radical and mainstream Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups, Kurds, and Iraqis living in exile, attended the meeting.
It took place under conditions of tight security at a U.S.-controlled airbase near the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
The purpose of the gathering was to bring together the leaders of Iraq's diverse opposition groups so they could begin discussions about Iraq's future government.
Also at the meeting was the head of the U.S. military administration for Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, as well as President Bush's envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
But Iraq's main Shiite group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, boycotted the meeting, saying the Iraqi people will not accept an administration imposed by foreigners. And thousands of Shiite Muslims demonstrated a few kilometers away from where the meeting was held, chanting "No to America, no to Saddam."
The leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi, did not attend the talks, choosing to send a representative.
The gathering was addressed by several speakers including Mr. Khalizad, who told the participants the United States has no intention of ruling Iraq. He expressed his hope for a quick establishment of an Iraqi interim authority and urged the opposition leaders to establish their own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values.
A Shiite religious leader from Nasiriyah called for separation of mosque and state, saying dictators may not speak in the name of religion.
After decades of being persecuted by Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni Muslim regime, many in Iraq's Shiite majority are fearful they will not be adequately represented in a new Iraqi government.
The Iraqi leaders agreed to meet again in 10 days and said the new government must be democratic and that Saddam Hussein's Baath party must be dissolved.