Hazim al-Shaalan poured scorn on Iran in a speech to US, British, Iraqi and other military officers on Wednesday.

"Iran runs a major terrorist ring inside Iraq," Shaalan said, repeating accusations frequently made by himself and his ally interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

"I have already said that this state [Iran] is the prime enemy of Iraq, an enemy of Iraq since before Islam, because it helped the enemies of the Arabs and humanity."

"Syrian, Iranian and former Iraqi intelligence are cooperating with the Zarqawi group," Shaalan said, referring to the Jordanian's group which has claimed some of the bloodiest bombings and kidnappings since the war.

"We want democracy and they want the dictatorship of Islam and clerical rule," he said at the opening of two days of talks on the role of Iraq's new National Guard security force.

However, Iran and Syria deny any links with Iraq's anti-US fighters.

Iran condemned the US-led invasion of Iraq last year, and Iranian officials have accused Iraqi officials of being mouthpieces for their "US masters".

Tehran says Iraqis alone should determine the fate of their country and "occupation forces" should leave the nation.

"It seems he has a mission to say such things," Iran's Interior Minister Abd al-Wahid Mousavi-Lari said in response to Shaalan's comments.

"I have always thought his remarks were because he was young, inexperienced and immature. But now I believe he has been ordered by his masters to say such things," he said.

'Iranian list'

Al-Shaalan also claimed Hussain al-Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist jailed for opposing Saddam, had alleged links to Iran. 

Al-Shahristani was Saddam's
chief nuclear scientist in the 70s

Al-Shahristani is a leading figure in the United Iraqi Alliance electoral bloc, which has the backing of Iraq's top Shia cleric Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani.

The defence minister described the alliance as "the Iranian list" and made veiled accusations about al-Shahristani's relationship with Iran.

"Shahristan is a city in Iran," he said. "He went to Iran. Today he returns to become Iraq's prime minister."

Leading Iraqi Shia politicians, however, told Aljazeera.net in April that what ties they maintain with Iran do not preclude them from acting independently.

Meanwhile, al-Shaalan also said that Ali Hassan al-Majid will be the first of Saddam Hussein's top deputies to face trial.

He said the initial hearings could begin next week and would definitely take place by mid-January - days before Iraq holds its first post-Saddam election, for which campaigning began on Wednesday.

'Investigative hearings'

While al-Shaalan described the process as a trial, a statement from the Special Tribunal appointed to judge Saddam and his lieutenants later said they would be "investigative hearings", the first phase of the trial process.

Al-Majid is accused of some of the worst crimes allegedly committed during Saddam's decades in power, including the gassing of as many as 5000 Kurds in Halabja in the late 1980s.

Al-Majid was a leading member
of the former Iraqi government

Al-Majid is not believed to have seen a lawyer since he was seized by US forces in August last year. He is expected to deny the charges.

Some officials, including a senior member of the interim government, have suggested that the announcement of the trials was timed to create publicity ahead of the election, due on 30 January.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced his candidacy for the polls on Wednesday, with his name at the top of a 200-member list of candidates.

"It's a piece of showmanship, to try to show that something has been achieved before the election," said the senior government official, who asked not to be identified.