The meeting coincides with the finalising of President Bill Clinton's policy review on Iraq, in which he is expected to 'depersonalise' his strategy while emphasising the need for sanctions to remain; and warnings that President Saddam will soon bring to a close his honeymoon period with the new administration by launching a crackdown against his own people.
As the United Nations formally renewed sanctions on Iraq yesterday, the United States distanced itself from insisting that the Iraqi leader must be out of power before the restrictions are lifted. Asked whether Washington still insisted President Saddam leave office before sanctions could be lifted, the US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, said: 'We are not talking about that.' She added, however, that Iraq was not yet willing to destroy its weaponry and appeared to have no intention of agreeing to long-term UN monitoring of its arms potential.
It is almost two years to the day since President Saddam's forces crushed the uprising in northern Iraq and Mr Major initiated the creation of safe haven zones to protect the population there. The delegation of the INC, a coalition of Kurds, Shias, Sunnis and other opposition groups, is expected to include Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Baharu Uloom, one of the main leaders of the Shia uprising in southern Iraq two years ago, and Hassan al-Naqib, a Sunni ex-general.
The London meeting is seen as a prelude to a visit by the same delegation to Washington in mid-April. The opposition sees the contact as a reassuring gesture by the West at a time when Mr Clinton is making clear he is not pursuing a personal vendetta against President Saddam.
The shift in emphasis reflects the apparent belief within the new administration that Iran is the bigger threat to US interests in the region. The new policy steers clear of any intention to remove President Saddam and emphasises instead 'full compliance' with the UN resolutions demanding Baghdad recognise Kuwait's right to exist, open its nuclear facilities to UN inspection, and end oppression of its own population. One diplomat said: 'It is politically risky to establish Saddam's removal as a goal, since it is unlikely to happen in the near future and the policy will thus be seen to have failed.'
US officials claim, in practice, the implications come to the same thing. 'Our primary goal is to have Iraq comply fully with all UN Security Council resolutions. We don't believe Saddam can comply with all UN resolutions and still remain in power,' said George Stephanopoulos, White House communications director.
A senior Iraqi opposition figure said yesterday he was satisfied Washington would 'reaffirm its policy' of keeping the pressure on Iraq, even if it did not include toppling President Saddam. 'The whole philosophy of this administration is to judge people by their conduct rather than their past,' said Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party. 'But since we cannot imagine any Iraqi government complying with the UN and staying in power, it comes to the same thing.'
Mr Zebari nevertheless underlined the need to keep up the pressure in the light of recent conciliatory gestures from Baghdad: 'Saddam can be expected to mount a fresh challenge to the West following a honeymoon period with the new administration.'
The US State Department said yesterday it had evidence that Iraq had recently shipped an unspecified amount of oil to Iran in violation of UN resolutions.
'We can confirm a shipment of oil from Iraq to Iran,' said the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher. Mr Boucher declined to say how much oil had been shipped or when, but an administration official said there appeared to have been a single shipment recently.