Sen. John Edwards defended his backing for the war in Iraq to skeptical Democratic activists Sunday, but said the real test of U.S. policy will come after the fighting ends.

Disputes over the war have left deep skepticism among many Americans and other countries around the world, he said, and the United States must find a way to ease those concerns.

"The way to do that is to be committed to reconstructing Iraq," said Edwards. "We also ought to make it clear that we are not there for those oil fields."

The North Carolina senator urged President Bush to join tightly coordinated reconstruction efforts. He said the United States could send the strongest of signals by quickly returning control of the Iraqi oilfields to a transitional regime and making clear that oil revenues will stay in Iraq.

"We have to make it absolutely clear that that money is going to them," said Edwards, who is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Edwards opened a series of forums sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

The forums, which will stretch over the next few months, offer contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination a chance to make their case to activists in the state where precinct caucuses will launch the presidential nominating season next January.

In the first session, Harkin and Edwards prowled the stage, taking questions from about 300 activists.

The questions were generally friendly and dealt with traditional Democratic issues, such as bolstering health care and strengthening unions.

Harkin opened the forum by saying it was fine to ask questions about the war in Iraq, but that he was leery of having the session focused exclusively on the war.

Many of the participants were hand-picked members of Democratic interest groups. They dutifully kept the focus on issues like attacking Bush's tax cuts, boosting education spending and strengthening worker rights. Many of the questions resembled speeches.

In his opening statement, Edwards addressed the issue "that we are seeing every day on television" in an effort to set the record straight.

"First of all you need to hear it directly from me," Edwards said. "I believe in this cause and I believe this is the right thing to do. It has been my position for a long time and it is still my position and I stand by it, period."

There was the sound of one or two people clapping after Edwards issued his statement, but he quickly turned his attention to the argument that the nation's economy has gone sour under Bush's tenure.

Edward's moderate views on defense issues was challenged when prominent peace activist Chet Gwinn asked Edwards to list any steps he had taken to cut military spending, a question that drew cheers from the crowd.

"It is on this issue that you and I disagree," Edwards said. "I think it's important for us to maintain our strength."