The New Republic

March 17, 2003

How Paris Armed Saddam

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FRENCH TWIST

By

Kenneth R. Timmerman

In recent weeks, the normally somnolent United Nations has become the scene of furious bargaining and arm-twisting over a potential second resolution authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq. And, as followers of the United Nations know, while Washington has tried to line up support for the resolution, primary opposition has come from France. French officials have vowed that Paris is committed to disarming Iraq, though France prefers to continue with weapons inspectors rather than to utilize force. "Together and in peace, we must keep strong pressure on Iraq to attain the objective we have set: the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," French President Jacques Chirac said this week. Yet, while Paris claims it wants to disarm Iraq, France actually has continued arming Saddam Hussein's regime &endash; right up to the present day. France is responsible for nearly 25 percent of Iraq's imports, trade worth nearly $1.5 billion to French companies. The antiwar movement makes considerable hay of America's support of Saddam during the 1980s. What they overlook is that France has been providing equipment with military uses to Baghdad for years.

It's no secret that France has significant oil interests in Iraq. According to Richard Perle, who heads the Pentagon's unofficial Advisory Defense Policy Board, the French national oil giant TotalFinaElf recently negotiated a contract with Baghdad to expand Iraq's huge southern oil fields worth an estimated $40 to $60 billion. That contract can only come to fruition if Saddam remains in power. "One can suspect that there is something there; that in between the real value of the contract and the cash value of that contract there is a certain amount of political support," Perle says. "It's entirely possible that Saddam negotiated that deal because he thought that along with the revenues . . . . he'd get something else."

TotalFinaElf has not publicly announced the deal mentioned by Perle, yet a former Iraqi trade official who recently defected told me that Baghdad was seeking "to reward France through lucrative oil contracts" for its political support. He also pointed out that Iraqi intermediaries regularly arranged payment from French oil companies under the U.N.'s oil-for-food program and that these oil firms send some of the cash to Saddam's inner circle. "Ten percent of contract value is regularly kicked back to Saddam Hussein and his sons, Uday and Qusay, for use in purchasing equipment for their illicit weapons programs," he said.

Worse than oil deals, Iraq turns to France for telecommunications products, pesticides, and other items ostensibly imported to rebuild Iraq's civilian infrastructure but which cold be used for Iraqi weapons programs. Since 1997, the U.N. Office of the Iraq Programme (OIP) has catalogued Iraq's foreign contract in a database that shows a wealth of French deals.

For instance, a review of export-license applications catalogued by the OIP reveals that, over the past four years, French telecommunications giant Alcatel has signed contracts worth more than $65 million to upgrade Iraq's fiber optic infrastructure, which American intelligence complains helps Baghdad evade electronic eavesdropping. During the Gulf war, most of Saddam's military communications were carried over microwave relays, or more simply by radio, and were easily tapped by American intelligence from afar. But fiber-optic landlines must be physically tapped into by agents on the ground, putting these agents at serious risk. Fiber optics, accordingly, would provide the Iraqi regime with better security over its operational planning, allowing Saddam to more easily relay his orders to commanders in the field in the event of war.

Over the same time period, many other French companies have made the pilgrimage to Baghdad. French firms have supplied specialized pumps and other equipment that could potentially be sued for Iraq's centrifuge or uranium-enrichment programs. Indeed, an October 2001 intelligence analysis by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory indicated that Iraq was importing large quantities of equipment from France and elsewhere that was specially coated to allow it to be used with highly corrosive uranium hexafluoride gas, which is used in uranium enrichment.

Meanwhile, French automakers Renault and Peugeot have signed deals to supply Iraq with trucks, including tractor-trailers, that can be modified and used to launch Scud missiles. The medical company Karl Storz Endoscopic France S.A. has inked a contract to sell Iraq lithotripsy machines, which can be used for treating kidney stones. But these machines also employ a high-speed krytron switch similar to those used to trigger nuclear warheads, and, according to published reports, Baghdad sought to import an additional 120 "spare" krytrons that might then be utilized in military programs. Indeed, former Iraq officials say that an Iraqi intermediary named Faiz Nahab, who now lives in Britain, has repeatedly sought to import banned equipment for Iraq's weapons programs under the guise of medical devices.

Given the potential dual use of items like the lithotripsy machines, the United States, using its power over sanctions on Iraq, has placed a hold on the Karl Storz deal. That deal, unfortunately, is hardly unique. A recent $40 million contract with the French subsidiary of the German company Siemens to supply unspecified "engineering services" to Iraq was put on hold by the American mission at the United Nations because of its potential to feed directly into Iraq's proscribed weapons programs. In fact, Washington has placed holds on 93 French contracts because of their potential to be utilized in producing weapons of mass destruction. Many times, including in the case of Karl Storz, the French government has simply turned around and resubmitted similar contracts to the United Nations, which have gone through.

In private, French officials vigorously deny that commercial motives are driving their alliance with Germany against using force to disarm Iraq. Yet, even as the drums of war beat louder and the world focuses on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, French firms have continued their potentially dangerous trade with Baghdad. According to OIP information, in 2002 French agricultural-equipment supplies Dow AgroSciences and Levant Overseas Development Ltd., signed deals providing Iraq with pesticides, a catchall category of chemicals that American officials and nonproliferation experts point out includes chemicals that are direct precursors of chemical weapons.

If Iraq's past behavior is any guide, even more dangerous contracts signed in secret may come out in the wake of a conflict with the United States. Which is one more reason Paris would prefer Saddam remain in power.

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Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for INSIGHT magazine and author of the DEATH LOBBY: HOW THE WEST ARMED IRAQ