Senior officials from several Middle Eastern countries have opened talks in Istanbul on ways to prevent a war against Iraq. The foreign ministers from the participating countries will be joining the talks later in the day.

The meeting, bringing together representatives from Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is seen as a last-ditch attempt by regional leaders to head off a war between the United States and Iraq. With the exception of Egypt, all the countries share a border with Iraq.

The foreign ministers are widely expected to send a clear message to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he needs to cooperate fully with United Nations weapons inspectors, if he wants to avoid conflict with the United States.

But they are also expected to express their strong opposition to war and stress that the Iraq crisis needs to be resolved within the framework of international institutions.

Turkey's foreign minister, Yasar Yakis, on Wednesday denied media reports that the conference would seek to come up with a plan for the Iraqi leader to step down and go into exile in a third country. Turkey has been at the forefront of a diplomatic campaign to resolve the Iraq crisis through peaceful means.

Turkey is the NATO alliance's sole predominantly Muslim member and is expected to play a key role in the event of a war against Iraq, as it did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

On Thursday, Iraq renewed calls on Turkey not to take part in a war, saying conflict would harm Turkey as much as it would Iraq.