The French government secretly supplied fleeing Iraqi officials with passports in Syria that allowed them to escape to Europe, The Washington Times has learned.
An unknown number of Iraqis who worked for Saddam Hussein's government were given passports by French officials in Syria, U.S. intelligence officials said.
The passports are regarded as documents of the European Union, because of France's membership in the union, and have helped the Iraqis avoid capture, said officials familiar with intelligence reports.
The French support, which was revealed through sensitive intelligence-gathering means, angered Pentagon, State Department and intelligence officials in Washington because it undermined the search for senior aides to Saddam, who fled Iraq in large numbers after the fall of Baghdad on April 9.
"It made it very difficult to track these people," one official said.
A second Bush administration official said, "It's like Raoul Wallenberg in reverse," a reference to the Swedish diplomat who supplied travel documents to help Jews escape Nazi Germany in World War II. "Now you have the French helping the bad guys escape from us."
Asked about the passports, Nathalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy, said French authorities have not issued any visas to officials of the former Iraqi regime since the beginning of the war in Iraq, either in Syria or elsewhere.
"France formally denies this type of allegation, which is not only contrary to reality but is intended to discredit our nation," she said. "It is certainly time for rumors of this type — totally unfounded and a dishonor to those who spread them — to stop."
The French passports allow the wanted Iraqis to move freely among 12 EU countries that are part of the Schengen agreement on unrestricted travel. Britain, Denmark and Ireland are not part of the Schengen pact.
The intelligence on the French passports came after reports indicated that a French company covertly sold military spare parts to Iraq in the weeks before the war.
Other intelligence reports indicated that a French oil company was working with a Russian oil firm to conclude a deal with Saddam's government in the days before military action began March 19.
The French government also denied U.S. intelligence indicating that a Chinese chemical company used French and Syrian brokers to circumvent U.N. sanctions in providing Iraq with chemicals used in making missile fuel.
Regarding the French passports for fleeing Iraqis, Pentagon officials have expressed frustration that few of the most senior leaders identified on the list of top 55 officials of the Saddam regime have been captured.
The capture yesterday of an Iraqi biological weapons scientist, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, brings to 19 the number of senior Iraqi leaders who have been caught. One has been reported killed.
Only one of the captives is ranked in the top 10.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday that he did not know how many Iraqi officials had been given haven in Syria.
"Some have been made available to us," Mr. Powell said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"Let me put it that way: Who we knew were there are no longer there," he said. "They've been made available to us, and they will be before the bar of justice of the Iraqi people."
Mr. Powell said other wanted Iraqis have been identified to the Syrian government "to see whether they can be located."
"But my sense from President Bashar al-Assad is that he has no interest in serving as a haven for any of these individuals," Mr. Powell said. "So I think if we can give him information and give him specific names and anything else we can say about these people, I think he would try to respond."
It could not be learned whether Mr. Powell and the Syrian president discussed Iraqis who might have transited through Syria to other nations.
Mr. Powell said Syria has been "helpful" in the past two years in dealing with the war on terrorism, primarily through U.S. and Syrian intelligence liaison.
The secretary also told Mr. Assad that "there may be people in Syria that we don't know about but you know about" who should be turned over to U.S. forces.
"This is the time for you to locate these individuals and turn them over to Iraqi justice and not allow Syria to become a haven for materials that might be coming out of Iraq still, or came out of Iraq or individuals who are trying to seek haven," he said.
Under pressure from the United States, Syria in the past several weeks expelled more than 30 Iraqis, many who came from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
After first granting sanctuary to former Iraqi intelligence official Farouk Hijazi, Syria turned him over to U.S. officials in Iraq.
Congress is considering legislation that would impose economic sanctions on Syria for its support of terrorism and to pressure it to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and stop building ballistic missiles.