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.
A French cultural center in Baghdad was sacked by looters, but officials said it is unlikely that the center had blank passports.
Embassies normally have spare passports for their nationals in case passports are lost or stolen.
France would have had blank passports in its embassy for any French nationals who might have been doing business with Saddam's government under the U.N. oil-for-food program.
A second defense official said he believes that the French passports found in Iraq were part of a batch used by some former Iraqi officials to flee the country to avoid being captured by coalition forces.
The Washington Times first reported on May 6 that U.S. intelligence agencies had uncovered information that the French government provided Iraqi officials from Saddam's government with passports that allowed them to escape the country.
U.S. intelligence officials were upset by the passport assistance because the French documents gave the fleeing Iraqis free travel within 12 European Union countries, making it harder to find and capture the officials.
Coalition forces in Iraq have captured about half of the 55 Iraqi officials listed as the most-wanted members of Saddam's regime.
The failure to capture most of the high-ranking officials has been a source of frustration, defense officials said.
Reports of France providing passports to Iraqis led to an investigation of the matter by the Department of Homeland Security.
The probe was requested two weeks ago by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, based on the report in The Times, which quoted U.S. intelligence officials.
Raj Bharwani, a spokesman for Mr. Sensenbrenner, said in an interview that the Judiciary Committee was notified Tuesday by the Homeland Security Department that there was "no indication that France supplied passports to Iraqis" fleeing from coalition forces.
A Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the investigation involved checking with "our intelligence sources" about the matter.
"All of our sources indicated that the allegations were incorrect," the official said.
Asked whether the department knew about the French passports found in Iraq, the official referred questions to the CIA.
A CIA spokesman had no comment. But a U.S. official said, "We don't have any information on that."
The official suggested that if the Iraqis had French passports, the documents may have been forged. "The Iraqis are adept at forging passports," the official said.
Defense officials said the CIA had no report about the French passports and was instrumental in the Homeland Security Department probe coming up empty.
A State Department official said the French provision of passports to the Iraqis was like "Raoul Wallenberg in reverse" -- a reference to the Swedish diplomat who helped Jews escape Nazi Germany during World War II.
In Iraq, "the French were helping the bad guys escape," the official said.
French government officials have denied that they in any way assisted fleeing Iraqis.
France's government strongly opposed U.S. military action in Iraq. French President Jacques Chirac stated two days before the start of the war that Saddam was not a threat that warranted military action.
Other intelligence reports in recent months showed covert French collaboration with Saddam's government.
A defense intelligence report in early March showed that French oil companies were working with Russian oil firms to conclude deals with Saddam's regime that both companies hoped would be honored by any successor government.
Iraq also succeeded in obtaining spare parts for its Mirage jets and Gazelle helicopters in January from a French company working through a firm in the United Arab Emirates.
A French broker also helped a Chinese chemical manufacturer ship a chemical used in making solid missile fuel to Iraq, according to intelligence officials.