The Washington Times

Search for Iraqis focuses on Europe

May 7, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01


U.S. intelligence agencies are intensifying the search in Europe for officials of Saddam Hussein's government who fled Iraq with the help of French passports, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The search efforts were strengthened after intelligence sources reported that France's government secretly provided fleeing Iraqi officials with European Union travel documents in Syria that allowed them to escape to other countries, said U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The Washington Times first reported yesterday that U.S. intelligence officials said the French government provided an unknown number of Iraqis in Syria with passports that allowed them to travel to Western Europe in late March and early April.

Several U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said yesterday that they could not confirm the report, but the matter would be further investigated. Mr. Powell told reporters, "It's one press report, and I have just started my day, and I have not looked into it. I don't know the source. I don't know if it's accurate or not." He said he had not talked to French officials and would look into the allegations.

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "I think the French will have to explain what they did or did not do."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he was not aware of the intelligence reports on which The Times story was based. He said the State Department accepts the French government denial that it provided passports to fleeing Iraqis.

"I think, first of all, the French government has spoken about this - I believe will speak again - and says it's not true," Mr. Boucher said. "We have nothing that would lead us to doubt that at this point. At this point, we're not able to corroborate the reports."

Other U.S. officials said the French passports had made it difficult to track down fleeing Iraqis because they had allowed Saddam's officials to travel freely in 12 EU countries.Defense and intelligence officials said they have been frustrated by the failure to capture senior Iraqi leaders since the fall of Baghdad on April 9.

Officials said they do not know yet whether the failure to capture high-ranking Iraqis is linked to the issuance of the French passports.

The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies are increasing their focus on Western Europe as a location for former Iraqi regime officials who are now in hiding, the officials said.

So far, 19 Iraqis on a list of 55 most-wanted officials have been captured by coalition forces.

Only one of the captured officials is regarded as among the most-wanted 10.

The French Embassy in Washington denied the report again yesterday, calling the allegations of U.S. intelligence sources "totally false and scandalous."

Said spokeswoman Nathalie Loiseau: "There's no basis to it. There is not one Iraqi official in Europe thanks to France."