A U.S. military intelligence team in Iraq has uncovered a dozen French passports, and defense officials believe other French passports from the same batch were used by Iraqis to flee the country.
Defense officials are still investigating whether the passports were provided covertly by the French government, or were stolen or forged by Saddam Hussein’s regime, said defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
France’s government has denied that it provided any passports to fleeing Iraqi officials and called news reports of French collaboration with Saddam’s regime U.S. “disinformation.”
Disclosure of the passports comes as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is in Paris attempting to repair Washington’s strained ties with France over its opposition to U.S. military action in Iraq.
Mr. Powell said yesterday that ties between the two allies are “excellent” but that differences over Iraq remain. “We’re not going to paper over it and pretend it didn’t occur,” he said. “It did occur. But we’re going to work through that.”
Mr. Powell told France’s TF1 television that the Bush administration is disappointed with French opposition to the war in Iraq. He said Washington is reviewing its relations with France to see whether changes are needed.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security this week concluded an intelligence investigation that said that reports of France’s role in providing passports to former Iraqi officials could not be confirmed.
According to the defense officials, the French passports found in Iraq were obtained by U.S. military teams in the country within the past several weeks.
The teams are searching for weapons of mass destruction and gathering intelligence on Iraq’s arms programs.
“There were about a dozen French passports recovered that we know of,” one defense official said. No other details were provided.
The official said the passports themselves do not mean that France provided the documents and that the passports may have been looted from the French Embassy.
“And if embassies are looted, blank passports would be a great commodity in the right hands,” the official said. “The French had a lot of business interests in Iraq through the [U.N.] oil-for-food program.”
According to numerous U.S. press accounts from Iraq, however, the French Embassy in Baghdad was not looted.
The French Embassy was protected by armed guards and barbed wire in the days after the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces.