Summit for Iraqi rebels hosted by FO

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THE FOREIGN Office is hosting a meeting of more than a dozen exiled Iraqi opposition groups on Monday as part of attempts to undermine President Saddam Hussein.

British officials say it is aimed at forging unity in a movement better known for internal feuding and rivalries than for any influence it wields in Baghdad. "There is no question of supplying large quantities of money or any weapons," the Foreign Office said. The US, by contrast, has allocated $97m (pounds 60m) to finance military aid and training for opponents of President Saddam.

Even so, as United Nations inspectors resume their search for secret Iraqi biological and chemical-weapons development, the move is further proof of the change in Anglo-American strategy since last weekend's crisis, which saw the allies come within minutes of launching military strikes against President Saddam.

In a newspaper interview yesterday Tony Blair said there was evidence of mounting opposition and disillusion in Iraq.But despite a quickening flow of high-level Iraqi defectors, Britain is not deluding itself that the task will be easy. Monday's meeting with the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett is seen as the first of a series to "encourage" the opposition to elaborate a common vision of a post-Saddam Iraq.

Those invited include the two main anti-Saddam groups, the Iraqi National Accord, the Iraqi National Congress, the London-based group that would have to be at the core of any unified opposition, and a clutch of smaller organisations.

Washington: The leader of the most prominent Iraqi opposition group met the US State Department yesterday to discuss the emerging strategy for replacing President Saddam, writes Andrew Marshall.

Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, met Martin Indyk, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, the top US policy- maker on Iraq. Mr Chalabi wants the US to provide support for a provisional government to be established in southern Iraq, including military aid to fight the Iraqi armed forces.