Iyad Allawi told the interim national assembly on Tuesday that members of Saddam Hussein's former government would face trial next week "to ensure that justice is done in Iraq".
Set to be tried by a special Iraqi tribunal for cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, some of the men and women who ruled Iraq for decades could face the death penalty if found guilty.
The trials had been delayed due to preparation difficulties and complex legal procedures, Allawi said. "We have finished the procedures and nominated (judges) and I can say with certainty that the trials will begin next week and continue," he said.
But the Iraqi lawyer of detained former prime minister Tariq Aziz, Badia Arif Izzat, criticised such a tight timetable.
"It is impossible to begin the trials next week. Perhaps he was talking about the start of the judicial inquiry which a lawyer must attend," he said.
"After that, the lawyer has to familiarise himself with the files, which takes a minimum of a month. If the trial begins without a lawyer attending a judicial inquiry, the trial will be invalid," he added.
And Iraq's justice ministry also said it had not been told anything about the latest plans.
Saddam's trial is not expected to
start until after the vote
"We have no details or information about this," a justice ministry spokesman said. "When the prime minister said this in the National Council today, personally, I was surprised."
A US official also said the news caught him by surprise and another Iraqi official said it was an election stunt by Allawi, who is due to announce his electoral list on Wednesday.
Iraqi and US officials have been divided on when the much-anticipated trial of Saddam Hussein himself will actually get under way.
Interim Iraqi leaders had said even Saddam's trial would start in 2004, or at least before landmark general elections in January 2005.
Start date unclear
Then transport minister Luay Hatim Sultan al-Aris said in December it would begin after the vote.
Just one day before Allawi's address to the national assembly, Washington said the trial should not be hurried and would probably begin in 2005.
"The process of preparing a trial or preparing a trial of such a complicated nature is one that does take time," state department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"The nature of this work is that much of the work is behind the scenes until it gets to a further stage of this investigation," he said.
"I would expect some of the things to come in early 2005 to be more visible as they prepare for trials and further develop the structures of this special tribunal," Boucher said.