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The French Connection II By: William Safire
New York Times | Friday, March 21, 2003


What will the world discover, after the war is over, about which countries secretly helped Saddam obtain components for terror weapons?

Last week, I wrote that French brokerage was involved in the illicit transfer of the chemical HTBP, a rubbery base for a rocket propellant, from a Chinese company through Syria to Iraq.

When Christiane Amanpour asked President Jacques Chirac about it on CBS's "60 Minutes," he replied: "Because The New York Times is a serious newspaper, as soon as I read this I ordered an inquiry. I can now confirm officially, after an inquiry by the French foreign ministry, France and French companies have never endorsed or even provided such material to Iraq. So I am clearly denying this allegation."

Mr. Chirac knows more than I do about trade with Iraq: in the late 1970's, he facilitated France's multibillion-dollar sale of the Osirak nuclear reactor to the rising Saddam. (After Iraq officially stated that the reactor's purpose was not to incinerate Tehran but "to eliminate Zionism," Israel destroyed it.)

Let me supply Mr. Chirac with some documentation that the Inspector Clouseau in his foreign ministry cannot find.

On Aug. 25, 2002, e-mail went from the director general of CIS Paris to Qilu Chemicals in China regarding a preliminary order: "We are about to have one of our affiliates open a L/C [Letter of Credit] for an initial order of 20,000 kg. of sealant type HTBP-III. . . . The drums should have a label mentioning the nature of the goods, same as your sample: `modified polybatadiene [sic] sealant type III,' it is not necessary that the label shows the name of your company."

Ten days later, on Sept. 4, this response came from Qilu: "Thank you for your order to our HTPB-III! We just have sent a 40-foot container to Tartous (Syria) last month. I am not sure whether the container is in your warehouse now." A month later, Qilu sought a "formal order."

A Times colleague in Paris visited CIS early last week. The director, Jean-Pierre Pertriaux, acknowledged the documents but said someone else had filled the order. I duly reported his denial.

Mr. Pertriaux has since written to me to denounce my column as "mostly imagination and slander." He argues, in a rambling fashion, "About HTPB, one of the uses of this chemical is as a binder for rocket propellant, one of the possible rocket style is long-range missile, which I personally know for sure the Iraqis do not have (the CIA know it still better): so the supply of HTPB is legal, it is not forbidden by the UN except for a use which does not exist, though it is unpleasant if you plan to invade Iraq and do not want to face field rockets or anti-tank weapons."

But what about those e-mail notes? "My company never supplied HTPB to Iraq (but it considered this eventuality) we know the Chinese QiLu company, they boasted to have shipped HTPB to promote their business but never actually did."

Then, "leaving you a chance to show that you distorted the truth, but did not organize a lie," the French broker pointed elsewhere: "Three shipments (totaling 115.8 tons) have actually been made from USA via Jordanian traders."

He didn't name the supposed suppliers, but I was able to check his assertion that "the supply of HTPB is legal" with an assistant secretary of state, John Wolf. "All military-related sales to Iraq are banned by several U.N. resolutions," countered Mr. Wolf, the man in charge of our nonproliferation bureau. "This is rocket fuel you're talking about. The fact that Iraq was permitted to have missiles in the sub-150-kilometer range does not therefore allow the import of such fuel. Any sale to Iraq, except for humanitarian goods, requires the approval of the U.N. sanctions committee." The U.S. is on that committee and never approved such a sale.

Is this component of fuel propelling "unpleasant" weapons in Iraq now, to be used against our troops? I have no proof of that. But the name of the Iraqi arms merchant who handled the shipment when it arrived in Syria is no mystery. After the war, he'll sing, same as Saddam's runners of Al Qaeda agents.

Then President Chirac, all injured innocence, may castigate the foreign minister who too quickly assured him that a column about a French connection was "devoid of all foundation."


William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.


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