Sunday, September 05, 2004

A path we should fear to tread

In what would perhaps be front-page news on another day, but for the tragic events in Russia, the Sunday Telegraph today reports on a row between France and Italy over whose intelligence service is to blame for the Niger uranium controversy, which led to Britain and America claiming wrongly that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy material for nuclear bombs.

Italian diplomats are claiming that France was behind forged documents which at first appeared to prove that Iraq was seeking "yellow-cake" uranium in Niger - evidence used by Britain and America to promote the case for last year's Gulf war.

But the reason why France apparently took this step should strike at the very heart of our relation with this EU member state which is supposed to be our partner in developing a common foreign and defence policy.

What France was doing was circulating a mixture of genuine and bogus documents in order to "trap" the two leading proponents of war with Saddam, the USA and the UK, into making unsupportable claims. The French apparently hoped that the bulk of the documents would be exposed as false, since many of them obviously were, their aim being “to make the allies look ridiculous in order to undermine their case for war.”

According to the Sunday Telegraph, France was driven by "a cold desire to protect their privileged, dominant trading relationship with Saddam, which in the case of war would have been at risk".

Not least of that relationship was the sale of arms to Saddam in breach of the UN arms embargo but even this pales into insignificance in comparison with the "oil for food" fraud, in which Saddam's dictatorship was able to siphon off an estimated $10 billion from the Oil-for-Food programme through oil smuggling and systematic thievery.

A full account of this scandal has been published by the Heritage Foundation. It demonstrates that not only were UN officials up to their neck in corruption but that French and Russian companies had their fingers deeply in the till as well, receiving respectively $3.7 and $7.3 billion of business through the programme.

A partial list of beneficiaries has been released, comprising 270 names of individuals, political entities, and companies from across the world, including former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, the "director of the Russian President's office," the Russian Communist Party, the Ukraine Communist Party, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the son of Lebanese President Emile Lahud, the son of Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, and George Galloway MP.

However, no fewer than 46 Russian and 11 French names appear on the list and there is little doubt that the close and lucrative ties between French and Russian politicians and the Iraqi regime were an important factor in influencing their governments' decision to oppose Saddam’s removal from power.

Already evidence has come to light of intimate political co-operation between Paris and Baghdad in the period leading up to the war against Hussein.

This includes documents which show that Paris shared with Baghdad the contents of private transatlantic meetings and diplomatic traffic from Washington, and that officials in the French Foreign Office shared information with their Iraqi counterparts on a sensitive meeting between former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine and US secretary of state Colin Powell following the terrorist attacks on 11 September. Details of talks between Chirac, and Bush were also reportedly passed on to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry by the French ambassador in Baghdad.

Today's story in the Sunday Telegraph provides one more indication of quite how far the French government was prepared to go to protect its interests, illustrating quite how untrustworthy an ally the French government really is. Yet, amazingly, the EU constitution sets the framework for even further co-operation between the UK and France on foreign affairs.

Knowing what we now know, do we really want to go down that path?

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