Under intense security, hundreds of delegates from across Iraq gathered Sunday in Baghdad (search) for a three-day national conference considered a vital step toward establishing democracy in the country.

The gathering of 1,300 delegates will help elect a 100-member national assembly that is to shepherd the country to its first democratic elections, scheduled for the end of January.

"This conference is not the end of the road for us, it is the first step ... to open up horizons of dialogue," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) told the delegates in an opening speech. "Your blessed gathering here is a challenge to the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country."

The gathering was held in the Green Zone (search), or secure, enclave, which houses Iraqi government buildings and the U.S. and British embassies. Helicopters flew overhead. Fifteen-feet high concrete barriers blocked the entrance to the Green Zone.

The conference presented an obvious target for insurgents waging a nearly 16-month violent uprising here, and bridges leading to the area were barricaded with concrete and Iraqi police checked cars as they slowly moved by.

Mithal al-Alusi, from the Iraqi National Congress party called the unprecedented gathering of religious, political and civic leaders "a great day in Iraq's history. Holding this conference is an important step in creating a kind of supervision of the government."

But the conference was plagued by turmoil even before it began.

It was delayed for two weeks as provinces struggled to agree on delegates and U.N. officials worked unsuccessfully to persuade several key groups to participate.

The gathering suffered another blow Saturday when talks to end an uprising by followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr broke down threatening renewed violence.

The fighting between al-Sadr's supporters and U.S. and Iraqi forces in the holy city of Najaf has angered many of the nation's majority Shiites, though some delegates said it did not change their plans to attend.

"We are against the killing of innocent people in Najaf, but we think that it is better to participate in the political process than not to, because we will have better means to express our views," said Mohammed Ali, a Shiite cleric.

Several key factions have decided to boycott, despite a public relations campaign that included full page advertisements in local papers and posters plastered on walls throughout the city.

Al-Sadr's group has rejected the meeting as undemocratic and refused to attend.

"The Iraqi national conference will be stillborn," Ahmed al-Shaibany, an al-Sadr aide told pan-Arab television network Al-Jazeera on Saturday. "It will be imposed by force on the Iraqi people as was Ayad llawi's government."

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a religious group with links to insurgents, also said it would not attend because of the interim government's reliance on the U.S.-led coalition.

Despite the boycotts, 70 different groups have agreed to participate, conference chairman Fuad Masoum said. "The movements that boycott this conference are free to do that, but that doesn't cause the conference to lose its legitimacy," he said Saturday.

The conference will elect 81 members of the 100-member national council, with the remainder coming from former members of the former Iraqi Governing Council who were left out of the interim government.

The national council will have the power to approve Iraq's 2005 budget and to veto executive orders with a two-thirds vote.

In January, Iraq is to hold elections to choose a transitional government. The newly elected government then will convene a national convention to draft a constitution to be put to the voters in October 2005. Iraqis will then hold another vote in December 2005 for a constitutionally based government.