BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's defense minister on Wednesday accused neighboring Iran and Syria of supporting terrorists in his country and charged that a senior Iraqi Shiite was leading a "pro-Iranian" coalition into next month's national elections.
Concerns have been raised over rising Iranian influence in the political future of Iraq, where the majority Shiites are expected to dominate elections scheduled for Jan. 30. Campaigning for the vote began Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Saddam's notorious right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), known as "Chemical Ali," will be among the first of Saddam's top deputies to appear in court next week for a preliminary hearing, said a Western official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity. On Tuesday, Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search ) announced Iraq will bring the former Iraqi officials to court next week for the first time since they appeared before a judge five months ago, and formal indictments could be issued next month.
Hazem Shaalann, who has previously accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq's affairs, said that Iranian and Syrian intelligence agents, plus former operatives from Saddam Hussein's security forces, are cooperating with the Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) "to run criminal operations in Iraq."
The Jordanian-born militant's group is believed to be leading a brutal campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings that victimize both Americans and Iraqis. U.S. officials have offered a $25 million bounty for al-Zarqawi.
Iran and Syria have rejected U.S. and Iraqi claims they are supporting insurgents in Iraq. Damascus, however, has said it is unable to fully close its long, porous border with Iraq.
With his comments, Shaalan may have been looking toward next month's polls, the first to be held since Saddam's capture a year ago. A leading coalition of Shiite parties called the United Iraqi Alliance, some with close ties to Iran, is expected to do well in the vote and Shaalan may be trying to stir up sentiment against it.
Shaalan took a swipe at an architect of the 228-member alliance and leading member, nuclear physicist Hussain al-Shahristani, describing him as the "leader of an Iranian list" that wants to Iraq to be run similar to its Shiite-dominated neighbor.
Wednesday is the official opening of the campaign period for the vote and the cutoff day for parties or independents to lodge registrations to stand in the elections. Shaalan is running on a separate list not affiliated with the alliance.
Allawi made his long-expected announcement to join the elections backed by a 240-member list of candidates at a Wednesday news conference meant, highlighting his appeal to Iraq's diverse and sometimes fractious ethnic and religious groups.
Surrounded by women and men variously clad in tribal garb, clerical turbans and smart suits, Allawi pledged to work for national unity and move away from "religious and ethnic fanaticism." He did not say how many members were on his list.
"By depending on God, and with a firm determination and based on strong confidence in the abilities of our people, we are capable of confronting the difficulties and challenges and of making a bright future for our honorable people," Allawi said.
Allawi said his party would push for the eventual withdrawal of multinational forces.
"Rebuilding the army and the forces of national safety enable us to work on asking for the final withdrawal of the multinational forces from our beloved country according to a set timetable," he said.
Earlier, Shaalan told reporters that Iraqi authorities obtained information about Iran's role in Iraqi's insurgency after last month's arrest of the leader of the Jaish Mohammed (search) (Mohammed's Army) terrorist group during U.S.-led operations in Fallujah.
"When we arrested the commander of Jaish Mohammed we discovered that key to terrorism is in Iran, which this the number one enemy for Iraq," Shaalan said.
On Nov. 15, Allawi said American forces detained Jaish Mohammed members, including its leader, Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, also known as Abu Ahmed, during the military operation to uproot insurgents based in Fallujah, west of Baghdad.
Allawi has said the group was known to have cooperated with al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda and Saddam loyalists and has claimed responsibility for killing and beheading several Iraqis, Arabs and foreigners in Iraq.
Shaalan accused Syria and Iran of providing funds and training for al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"They are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics to rule in Iraq," he said.
In the latest violence, a U.S. Marine was killed in action Tuesday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad containing the battleground cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, while a U.S. soldier belonging to the 1st Corps Support Command died from gunshot wounds sustained during a convoy mission south of Baghdad.
As of Wednesday, at least 1,304 U.S. military personnel have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Police said Wednesday at least four policemen traveling in a convoy of cars traveling to Baghdad a day earlier were killed by militants in Hafriya, south of the capital.