NEW YORK (AP) _ A major Iraqi opposition group has convened its first meeting in seven years here, despite a boycott by other anti-Saddam Hussein organizations who say the group relies too heavily on the United States.

About 300 delegates of the Iraqi National Congress began a three-day meeting Friday in the posh New York Sheraton Hotel. Speeches from David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues; and Sens. Bob Kerry, D-Neb., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., marked the first day.

Kerry, who sponsored the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act providing for arming Iraqi opposition groups, called for a change in U.S. policy.

``We are spending nearly $2 billion a year in the containment policy. We have a military strategy in place and it simply isn't working and it is unsatisfying to the American people,'' he said.

Alluding to the fracture among anti-Saddam forces, Kerry said: ``The fact that you can argue and disagree openly is a sign of freedom.''

Scheffer showed the audience a box of CD-ROMs he said contained more than 5 million pages of captured Iraqi documents that could be used to indict the Iraqi leadership for war crimes. He warned that the world is beginning to accept the Iraqi regime's propaganda.

``Saddam Hussein and his henchmen are still viewed by some governments as legitimate, tolerable leaders of a country somehow under siege by the international community,'' Scheffer said. ``In reality, these are thugs who terrorize what was once, and could again become, a great nation.''

Iraqi National Congress members said they hoped the gathering would reaffirm their unity, define their vision for a future Iraq and begin a new drive to overthrow Saddam.

However, the speeches were unlikely to change any minds among the 11 Iraqi opposition groups that boycotted the conference. They derided the Iraqi National Congress for its reliance on Washington and for having no forces on the ground inside Iraq.

Speaking in Damascus, Jawad Malki, a representative of the Islamic Dawa Party, said some Iraqi opposition parties were becoming puppets of the United States.

``The Americans deal with the Iraqi issue according to their goals,'' he said. ``They called for the meeting because they could not do anything on the ground.''

Bayan Jabr, the Syria representative of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also said ``real opposition should be in the field.''

``Overthrowing Saddam cannot be done miles away,'' he said.

The gathering in New York coincided with the announcement earlier this week that the United States will begin providing military support for Iraq's opposition forces.

Beginning Monday, four Iraqis opposition leaders are expected to begin classes on democracy in Florida, with more to follow. In what is being billed as ``non-lethal training,'' the Iraqis will study leadership skills, civil-military relations, legal issues and ``political opposition skills,'' Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.

For now, he said, there would be no combat training. The focus instead was to be on ``organization building'' to help the opposition develop outside Iraq and possibly later inside the country.