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Iraqi Opposition Groups Discuss Country's Future - 2003-04-15

The focus in Iraq shifted from the battlefield to the conference table as Iraqi exile groups opened discussions on the future of the country. In the meantime, coalition troops continued their hunt for pockets of resistance and 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. Iraqi participants released a 13-point statement calling for the next government to be democratic and to respect the diversity of all Iraqis.

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.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the boycott was a demonstration of democracy in Iraq and that in the end it will be up to Iraqis to decide their own future.

"People demonstrate in the United States and boycott political rallies and things," he said. "That is what free people do and it ought not to come as a surprise. Our attitude about it is, is that the Iraqis are going to have to sort this out."

Meanwhile, coalition forces continue to hunt pockets of resistance and are searching the countryside for weapons of mass destruction.

At the White House, President Bush said the coalition's military victory in Iraq is certain but by no means complete.

"The centralized power of the dictator has ended. Yet in parts of Iraq, desperate and dangerous elements remain," he said. "Forces of our coalition will engage these enemies until they surrender or until they are destroyed."

U.S. military officials say that their 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, says 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.

On the diplomatic front, Syria again denied U.S. allegations that it has chemical weapons and is harboring senior officials from the Saddam Hussein regime.

At the State Department, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while the United States is concerned about Syria's actions, there are no plans to expand the use of military force beyond Iraq.

"But there is no list. There is no war plan right now to go attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values," he said.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says that U.S. forces have shut down a pipeline used for illegal oil shipments from Iraq to Syria. There have been allegations that Syria has received Iraqi oil through the pipeline in violation of U.N. sanctions since it opened in 2000.