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Saturday, 27 July, 2002, 02:58 GMT 03:58 UK
US to host anti-Saddam talks
Saddam Hussein
Saddam has suppressed opposition within Iraq
The Bush administration has invited six Iraqi opposition groups to Washington for talks on how to remove President Saddam Hussein.

It is the first time the US has organised such a meeting, which will take place next month.

President Bush
Bush wants Saddam removed

The BBC's Pam O'Toole says the US appears to be hoping to persuade the divided and often fractious groups to co-operate more.

But hours before the invitation was made, one of the groups, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), suddenly postponed an expected announcement about plans to set up a provisional government in Iraq following a future US attack.

There has been growing speculation that US President George W Bush is planning a military offensive against Iraq, which he has accused of seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

On Friday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned the US against attacking Iraq, saying a military campaign could lead to many innocent victims.

Disunity fears

The groups invited to the talks include four opposition parties believed to have the most influence on the ground in Iraq.

Ahmed Chalabi, INC leader
The INC could help form a future Iraqi government

The INC, an umbrella group, has long sought official recognition in Washington as the mainstream opposition group, but the US has doubted its effectiveness.

Iraqi opposition sources quoted by Reuters news agency said that the proposed meeting signalled a shift towards acceptance by the US that the Iraqi opposition should play a part in any military campaign in Iraq.

"The message will be: 'The United States is dead serious and we are going to get rid of Saddam. You have a role but you have to work together'," said the source.

Correspondents say some of the groups have openly competed for Washington's favour, while various branches of the US Government have displayed preference for one group or another.

Future meetings

As well as the INC, invitations have been issued to Kurdish leaders, the Iran-based Shia Muslim opposition and the Iraqi National Accord.

Most of the groups are expected to take up the offer and go to Washington.

If the talks are successful, there may be further similar meetings, Iraqi opposition figures said.

There was a setback on Friday when the INC postponed a planned press conference in London at which it was expected to detail plans for a future government in Iraq.

In a statement, the INC said more time was needed "to enable further discussion amongst Iraqi opposition groups".

But some other Iraqi opposition sources said the briefing was put on hold following protests by some groups within the INC who claimed they had not been consulted.

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The BBC's David Bamford
"There is no shortage of groups and individuals hostile to Saddam Hussein"

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26 Jul 02 | Middle East
26 Jul 02 | Politics
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