. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites Open Dialogue in Ur

UR, Iraq -- Iraqi opposition leaders met Tuesday for a U.S.-conducted forum in the ancient biblical city of Ur to discuss plans for the country's future. Across the nation, meanwhile, Iraqis pleaded for water, power, law and order.

The meeting ended with an agreement to reconvene in 10 days. "We have no intention of ruling Iraq. ... We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values," said Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. President George W. Bush's envoy. "I urge you to take this opportunity to cooperate with each other."

The participants at the forum included Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims from inside the country as well as others who have spent many years in exile. U.S. officials issued invitations to the groups, but each picked its own representatives.

"It's critical that the world understand that this is only the fledgling first meeting of what will hopefully be a much larger series of meetings across Iraq," said Jim Wilkinson, spokesman at U.S. Central Command. It was an "unscripted, free-flowing forum of ideas" to get Iraqis talking about the future.

U.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday "our victory in Iraq is certain, but not complete" as he voiced satisfaction with U.S. military success in ending Saddam Hussein's regime. "These are good days in the history of freedom," he said at a White House briefing.

In the northern city of Tikrit, looters ransacked the agricultural building. Tanks were parked outside Hussein's palace and helicopters roared over the Tigris. A key bridge that U.S. forces seized a day earlier was damaged, and U.S. troops refused to let people cross.

"We have sick people," one man shouted. "These Americans are not letting them go to the hospital."

Just south of Tikrit, U.S. Marines had taken control of an airfield but were under anti-aircraft and rocket fire from pro-Hussein forces.

In Baghdad, hundreds of residents swarmed the Palestine Hotel on Tuesday, appealing for order. One held up a sign in English reading: "Bloody Liberation Movie Is Started. Bad Director."

Some chanted "Down, down, U.S.A.," and "U.S. out."

A group calling itself the Gathering for Democracy issued printed statements urging fellow Iraqis to stop looting public facilities. Looters have pillaged everything from government offices to museums, even making off with archaeological treasures.

Looters broke into government food warehouses and carted away sacks of sugar and flour. The three-story National Library smoldered, and the nearby Religious Affairs Ministry library -- home to valued religious texts -- was looted and gutted by fire.

UNESCO and the British Museum announced Tuesday that they planned to send teams of experts to Iraq to restore museums and artifacts.

The looting has dealt a harsh blow to the Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.

Last week, looters stole and smashed priceless archaeological treasures from Iraq's National Museum.

The museum holds items of incalculable cultural value, the most famous being the tablets with Hammurabi's Code -- one of mankind's earliest written laws. Among the missing treasures: The four millennia-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls and colossal statues, ancient manuscripts and bejeweled lyres.

Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's two largest cities, still lacked power, water and medical care. Half the medical clinics in Basra have been looted and children are suffering from diarrhea, the aid group Doctors of the World said.

In northern Baghdad, residents begged U.S. troops to take away military equipment, saying their children were starting to play with weapons.

Tuesday's conference of Iraqi leaders, all picked by the U.S. officials who will lead an interim government, took place at Tallil air base not far from the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, a terraced-pyramid temple of ancient Assyrians and Babylonians.

In nearby Nasiriyah, thousands of Shiite Muslims whose representatives were boycotting the meeting demonstrated against the gathering, chanting "No to America and no to Saddam."

Shiite leaders oppose U.S. plans to install a retired U.S. general, Jay Garner, as head of an interim administration.

"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government. Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

A 13-point statement released after the meeting stressed the need to work toward a democratic Iraq built on a rule of law and equality. It also called for dissolving Hussein's Baath Party but left open the question of separating church from the state.

In Baghdad, U.S. Marines were combing the capital for holdouts Tuesday, a day after U.S. military officials declared that major coalition combat operations were over.

Troops were also shifting attention to restoring power and water supplies, as well as law and order, to the capital.