msnbc.com news services
updated 1/23/2004 6:35:45 PM ET 2004-01-23T23:35:45

Iran, which the United States has long accused of harboring al-Qaida militants, said for the first time Friday that it would place a dozen jailed suspects on trial.

“They are currently in prison. Their relations are cut off from outside, and they are going to be tried,” Foreign Minister Khamal Kharrazi told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The most important al-Qaida figure who Western intelligence agencies say may be in Iran is Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who is the security chief of Osama bin Laden’s network.

In addition, Saudi sources said last year that Iran had detained Saad bin Laden, a son of bin Laden, as well as al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is accused of plotting the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Amman, Jordan, in 2002.

Iran has never confirmed the identity of the suspects, and Kharrazi said he could not name any of them for security reasons.

Asked if they were important figures, he said: “Al-Qaida members are very important to everyone these days, because of operating in different places.”

U.S. suspicions
The United States has long believed that Iran was harboring al-Qaida militants who escaped Afghanistan after U.S. troops invaded the country in late 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It has said Iran-based al-Qaida militants plotted suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia last May, and it has demanded that Iran help bring them to justice. Tehran denies that al-Qaida operated from its territory.

Friday, Washington said the Iranian plan for trial was not acceptable.

“We’ve heard these reports before. It’s not new. Our position hasn’t changed,” said J. Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman for the State Department. “We have long made it clear that we believe that Iran should turn over all suspected al-Qaida operatives to the United States or to countries of origin or third countries for further interrogation and trial.”

Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation, says it is ideologically opposed to al-Qaida, which is dominated by Sunnis, and has arrested and deported hundreds of its militants since the Afghan war.

A recent warming of relations between Iran and Egypt prompted security analysts to speculate that Tehran might hand over Saif al-Adel to Cairo, if indeed it was holding him. Asked when relations with Egypt would be formally re-established after a break of quarter of a century, Kharrazi said: “We are working toward that direction.”

Al-Adel is widely believed to have taken charge of al-Qaida operations after Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan.

Zarqawi, also named by the Saudi sources as being in Iran, attracted attention when Washington named him in the run-up to war in Iraq last year as a possible link between al-Qaida and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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