IRAQS national election campaign kicked off yesterday with angry accusations that Iran was masterminding the continuing insurgency in an effort to undermine democracy and bring about clerical rule.
The Iraqi interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, had earlier declared his candidacy in conciliatory fashion, saying he would work to unify the country and bring an end to the multinational occupation.
But Mr Allawis defence minister, Hazem Shaalan, set a different tone, reflecting what is expected to be a fiery election campaign.
Mr Shaalan accused Iranian and Syrian agents of co-operating with security forces loyal to the former dictator Saddam Hussein and Iraqs top terrorist figure, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, "to run criminal operations in Iraq". He also sharply criticised one of the main Iraqi factions competing with Mr Allawi in the election, calling it too close to Iran.
George Bush, the president of the United States, urged Syria and Iran not to interfere.
"We will continue to make it clear to both Syria and Iran that ... meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests," Mr Bush told reporters at the end of a meeting with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.
An Iranian role in Iraqi insurgency came to light after the arrest last month of the leader of Jaish Mohammed (Mohammeds Army), which officials have said is linked to Zarqawi.
"When we arrested the commander of Jaish Mohammed we discovered that the key to terrorism is in Iran, which is the No 1 enemy for Iraq," Mr Shaalan said.
"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."
Mr Shaalans comments may have been intended to stir up sentiment against the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of mainly Shiite candidates, some with close ties to Iran, which is expected to do well in the vote.
He took a swipe at an architect of the 228-member coalition, a nuclear physicist, Hussain al-Shahristani, describing him as the "leader of an Iranian list" that wants Iraq to be run in similar fashion to its Shiite-dominated neighbour.
Mr Allawi was less confrontational as he announced he would stand at the polls backed by a 240-member list of candidates meant to highlight his appeal to Iraqs diverse and sometimes fractious ethnic and religious groups.
Surrounded by supporters in tribal garb, clerical turbans and Western suits, he pledged to work for national unity and move away from "religious and ethnic fanaticism" if elected on 30 January.
A party led by the Iraqi elder statesman Adnan Pachachi also presented its list of candidates yesterday. However, Mr Pachachis Independent Democratic Gathering - a secular group - may decide not to campaign if it determines that violence will intimidate voters in the Sunni west and north, where it expects most support.
There was little improvement on the security front yesterday. Eight people were killed and 31 injured when a bomb exploded at the gate of one of Shia Islams holiest shrines, the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, hospital officials said.
Meanwhile, a senior US general said the bold, innovative insurgency has become more effective against US supply lines in Iraq, and attacks with explosives have slowed military operations.
An Italian working for a British non-governmental organisation has been kidnapped in Iraq, it was reported last night. The Italian news agency Ansa said intelligence sources had revealed the kidnapping but did not give any further details of the charity or the worker involved.