New York Times
October 9, 2004
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's 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 American efforts to repair the rupture caused by the Iraq war, French and other European officials said Friday.
The anger of France and others is focused on the assertions in the report by Charles A. Duelfer, the top American arms inspector in Iraq, that French companies and individuals, some with close ties to the government, enriched themselves through Iraq's efforts to gain influence around the world in the years before the war.
Administration spokesmen said Friday 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 Mr. Hussein had sought to corrupt foreign countries in order to have sanctions on Iraq lifted. Although Mr. 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 Mr. 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 American 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 United States. "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 American 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 damage," Mr. 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." Mr. Duelfer's main conclusion - that Iraq did not have unconventional weapons when the Bush administration was charging that it had them - got the most publicity when the 918-page report was issued.
But the administration highlighted charges that under Mr. Hussein, Iraq was successful in circumventing the sanctions placed on it by the United Nations by purchasing conventional weapons with money siphoned fraudulently from a program authorized by the United Nations 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.
Administration spokesmen said Friday that the United States did not endorse the allegations that anyone was enriched by Iraq's practices, only that Iraq was trying to buy influence and weaken sanctions.
"It doesn't say that those transactions were completed," said Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman. "It doesn't say whether or not governments intervened. It doesn't say whether or not the individuals declined. It doesn't really say what happened."
But that was not the tone adopted by Mr. Cheney and other officials caught up in President Bush's tough re-election campaign. In Florida on Thursday, Mr. Cheney said Mr. Hussein had used oil funds to corrupt "some employees of the United Nations as well as other governments in the hopes that they would work with him to undermine the sanctions."
A day before releasing the Duelfer report, the State Department called in officials from several embassies in Washington to give them a preview. That meeting itself stirred anger, according to those who attended. "We were not given the text of the report," said a diplomat from a country other than France. "We were directed to the C.I.A. Web site, and we couldn't download it," because the site was swamped.
Mr. Levitte said he had called top officials at the White House and the State Department to protest "in very strong terms that I considered this very unfair and not good behavior from a great democracy, to protect your own citizens and give publicity to others in the Web site of the C.I.A."
He said the officials had "noted with some embarrassment that I had a point."