Arriving in Brussels for an international conference on Iraq, Justice Minister Abdel Hussein Shandal told journalists that Washington was concealing information about the ousted Iraqi leader.

"It seems there are lots of secrets they want to hide," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.

Shandal's comments reflected behind-the-scenes tension between Iraq and the US, as American officials worry about the prospect of Iraq rushing into a trial unprepared.

There was no immediate comment from US officials.

The US-backed Baghdad government has not set a firm date for the start of his trial.

Shandal said no date has been set for Saddam's trial, but added that the trial would be finished by the end of the year and that he would be tried by Iraqi courts.

"This trial will be accomplished within 2005 - and this will only be in Iraqi courts," he said.

Death penalty

US officials, however, privately have urged caution about rushing into a trial, saying the Iraqis need to develop a good judicial system - one of the main topics of discussion at the EU-US-hosted conference on Wednesday.

"It seems there are lots of secrets they [the US] want to hide" 

Abdel Hussein Shandal,
Justice minister

Saddam, 68, faces charges that include killing rival politicians over 30 years, gassing Kurds in the northern town of Halabja in 1988, invading Kuwait in 1990, and suppressing Kurdish and Shia uprisings in 1991.

Shandal said he also would face charges related to the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure.

If convicted, Saddam Hussein faces the death penalty.

Meanwhile in Belgium, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other top officials are to meet with EU and Iraqi officials on coordinating international community support for Iraq's new government with regard to security and reconstruction.

Reconstruction efforts

Some 80 governments and institutions - from Fiji Islands and China to the Vatican - are sending senior officials to Wednesday's conference meant to bolster reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

The meeting is not meant to be a donors' conference but "is a chance to reassure the Iraqi people that the international community stands with them in their brave efforts to rebuild their country," Annan wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post.

The US and EU are co-hosting the
reconstruction conference

Wednesday's conference, co-hosted by the United States and the 25-nation EU, also seeks to send a signal that divisions over the US-led war in Iraq have been put aside, ensuring broad international backing for rebuilding Iraq.

"There may have been past differences over Iraq but as we move forward, there is a need for the world to work together so that Iraq's democracy will succeed," US President George Bush said Monday after meeting EU leaders in Washington.

International backing

Iraqi officials also said they would try to appeal for wider international backing. "We definitely want this to move from being an American-British sponsored project into one of wide international support," Saleh said.

Diplomats said the conference also was an opportunity for Iraq to patch up relations with its neighbours, notably Syria, Iran and Kuwait, which are sending foreign ministers to the talks.

American and European officials were expected to urge Iraq's neighbours to formally recognize the new government and to better guard their borders to keep what they say are fighters from infiltrating into Iraq.