Sun, Oct 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

US report of Iraq payoffs miffs France

RETURN TO ENMITY As the US withheld names of Americans suspected of having received payoffs in the Oil for Food scandal, Paris is fuming that others were identified

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

The US' handling this week of a report on Saddam Hussein's attempts to purchase weapons and buy influence has angered French officials and set back a year of US efforts to repair the rupture caused by the Iraq war, French and other European officials said on Friday.

The anger of France and others is focused on the assertions in the report by Charles Duelfer, the top US arms inspector in Iraq, that French companies and individuals, some with close ties to the government, enriched themselves through Iraq's huge payments to gain influence around the world in the years before the war.

Administration spokesmen said that there was no intent in releasing the report to endorse its findings or blame France or any other country for corruption, or to link any alleged corruption to that country's subsequent opposition to the war in Iraq.

On the other hand, Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the administration are citing the Duelfer report as evidence that Saddam had sought to corrupt foreign countries in order to have sanctions on Iraq lifted. Although Cheney did not say so directly, French officials say it was obvious that he was referring to France and other countries that had opposed the war.

French officials say that the report's charges, based on documents and interviews in Iraq, have been denied in the past, but that Duelfer's report did not contain the denials. They also complain that France was not given more than one day's notice before the report was issued.

They were incensed that the report also mentioned Americans in connection with similar charges, but that unlike the French they were not identified because of US privacy regulations.

"You protect American citizens, but you put in danger a number of private citizens in other countries who may be innocent people," said Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the US. "These names are from an old list, published months ago, and those mentioned denied it flatly."

A European diplomat said the damage to French-American relations was so great that it could disrupt a new spirit of cooperation with France on other fronts, namely the joint US and European efforts to put pressure on Iran to dismantle its suspected nuclear weapons program and to organize an international conference next month on Iraq.

"This report does great dam-age," Levitte said. "There really is a sense of outrage in Paris. We don't want to create a situation that will put us back to one year ago. But these are dirty tricks at the expense of France, with the White House putting the finger on the name of France."

Duelfer's main conclusion -- that Iraq did not have unconventional weapons when the Bush administration was insisting that it had them -- got the most publicity when the 918-page report was issued. But the administration high-lighted charges that Iraq was successful in circumventing the sanctions placed on it by the UN by purchasing conventional weapons with money siphoned fraudulently from a program authorized by the UN in 1996, allowing Iraq to sell oil and use the revenue for food, medicine and other human necessities.

To curry favor around the world, Iraq set up a system in which some individuals and companies were able to profit by manipulating the oil-for-food program. Among those enriched in this process, the report said, were French, Russian and other officials.

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