Former electricity minister Ayham al-Samarrai announced the creation of the National Council for Unity and Construction of Iraq in a news conference held at a family home in central Baghdad on Wednesday.

The council includes key Iraqi political and tribal figures in the region and calls for an end to all US military offensives on Iraqi cities.

Al-Samarrai has
called for the recognition of the right of Iraqis to resist the occupation forces.

He also called on the Iraqi government to recognise "the resistance" and hold talks with it.

Fighters' demands

Al-Samarrai said that a group of Iraqi fighters he is representing, wants US occupation troops to leave in no less than one year and no more than three years.

He added that the group won't put down their arms unless all their goals are met.

Bush rejected any notion of a
timetable for US troop pullback

In a speech early on Wednesday, US President George Bush rejected any notion of a timetable for a US troop withdrawal, saying it would be a "serious mistake".

There are about 138,000 US troops in Iraq.

A British newspaper this week reported that al-Samarrai brokered two recent meetings between US officials and a group of fighters, but al-Samarrai would only confirm that the talks took place and declined to give further details.

Resistance

Al-Samarrai also said that the group he represents is made up of "resistance" fighters and not "terrorists" who target civilians.

US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in US television interviews on Sunday that US officials have met some fighters, and said it might take as long as 12 years to quell the uprising.

"We do believe that those who carry out attacks against the innocents came from outside Iraq and belong to foreign intelligence, so we want to stop these attacks against Iraqis," he said.

"The resistance is ready to work and cooperate with the government to stop such operations."

The resistance is also calling for the release of detainees in US and Iraqi custody who are not killers or criminals, al-Samarrai said.

De-Baathification

Another priority is to end "de-Baathification," a policy introduced by US occupation authorities in 2003 to purge the government of senior members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

Al-Samarrai told The Associated Press in early June that two groups - the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of Mujahidin - were willing to negotiate with the Iraqi government, possibly opening a new political front in the country.

"The resistance is ready to work and cooperate with the government to stop such operations"

Ayham al-Samarrai,
former Iraqi electricity minister

A senior Shia legislator, Hummam Hammoudi, also told AP in early June that the Iraqi government had opened indirect channels of communication with some groups.

The contacts were "becoming more promising and they give us reason to continue," Hammoudi said, without providing details.

US and Iraqi officials also are considering amnesty for the fighters as they look for ways to end the country's uprising and isolate those wanting to start a civil war.

New US offensive

Also on Wednesday the US army launched a new military offensive in al-Anbar province, namely Operation Sword.

In a separate incident on Wednesday, two people were slightly injured in a missile attack near the provincial headquarters in the southern Iraqi city of Samawa, where Japanese forces are based.