Too Close To Iraq

What connects a “dear friend” of Jacques Chirac, €1.44 billion ($1.78 billion) in bribes and the Total Elf Fina oil company? Why, France’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

International opposition to the attack on Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein 2003 was widespread and loud. It was led by the French. 

There were good reasons for opposing the invasion by the Coalition of fifty-one nations that in one way or another did support the action initiated by the United States. Those reasons were moral, political and legal, and all of them were voiced by President Chirac and his government. 

Now, as the clouds of war recede, France’s real motivations can be seen more clearly. Now interesting connections are coming to light between high-up personalities in France’s government, systematic bribery conducted by the Iraqi regime, the preponderant influence of the Total Elf Fina oil company and a highly dubious approach to military adventurism abroad by anyone but the French themselves.

Personal Connections: ‘My Dear Friend’.

In 1974, Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, travelled to Baghdad and met the No. 2 man in the Iraqi government, Vice President Saddam Hussein. He was the personal spearhead of a major French trade initiative to the regime based on the sale of nuclear reactors to Iraq. 

In September 1975, Hussein returned the favour, flying to Paris where Chirac personally gave him a tour of a French nuclear plant. Two were sold, along with $1.5 billion-worth of weapons including an air defence system and sixty Mirage F1 fighter planes. The Iraqis, for their part, agreed to sell France $70 million worth of oil.

Chirac and Hussein formed what Chirac himself called ‘a close personal relationship’. How close is still speculated. One persistent rumour is that Hussein helped to finance Chirac’s run for mayor of Paris in 1977, after he lost the French premiership. Verified are the annual donations that Saddam made to the RPR, (Rassemblement pour La Republique), Chirac’s political party. The relationship reached the point that Iranians began referring to Chirac as “Shah-Iraq” and the Israelis spoke of the Osirak reactor in Iraq, built with French technology’ as “O-Chirac.”

In 1979, Saddam seized control of Iraq, murdered his political opponents and then invaded Iran. Two years later, Israeli planes attacked Osirak facilities, claiming it was about to be used to develop weapons grade materials, and reduced it to rubble. 

The French satirical and investigative magazine, ‘Le Canard Enchainé, published a letter from Chirac to Hussein dated 24 June 1987, which seemed to indicate that Chirac was negotiating to rebuild the Iraqi reactor. Obviously, this would have been illegal under United Nations resolutions signed by France. In the letter, Chirac addressed Hussein as ‘my dear friend’.

Diplomatic Connections; The $1.74 Billion Bribes

Throughout the 90s, as different US administrations prodded the United Nations into enforcing its own resolutions by isolating Iraq, the French ran static interference.

Only grudgingly did the French go along with the allied forces that ejected Saddam’s army when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. After the war, the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iraq, including the imposition of no-fly zones over parts of the country. Almost all the enforcement resources came from the US and the UK; France made a symbolic commitment of a dozen planes. When Iraqi forces killed opposition leaders in Kurdistan, the no-fly zone was extended from the 32nd parallel to the 33rd, a distance of about sixty miles. The French then announced that their planes would not observe the new boundary.

As America began contemplating the use of force to prevent Saddam stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction, France’s opposition transformed from passive resistance to active blocking both in the UN and outside. At one stage, a NATO proposal to send Patriot missiles to Iraq had to be submitted through an obscure sub-committee only because it had no French representative to veto it.

There is now growing evidence that significant elements of France’s political and diplomatic machinery were fuelled or, at the least, greased by bribery from Baghdad.

In 2004, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), a 1,400-member international team, reported on the thousands of documents seized from the Iraqis after the invasion. A campaign of systematic bribery was conducted, using the ‘oil-for-food’ scheme by which the United Nations lifted some embargoes on the country to allow Iraq to sell oil for medical supplies. $1.78 billion, according to the Duerffer report, was used by Saddam to finance the campaign from funds meant to go to sick and suffering Iraqis.

Memos from Iraqi intelligence officials show the dictator knew as early as May 2002 that France – having been granted oil contracts – would block American plans for war. Iraqi intelligence officials, according to the testimony of Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, had “targeted a number of French individuals that Iraq thought had a close relationship to French President Chirac”, it said, including two of his ‘counsellors’ and spokesman for his re-election campaign. 

A French investigating magistrate, Philippe Courroye, explored how far the corruption went. Diplomats Serge Boidevaix, ex-head of the French foreign ministry, and Jean-Bernard Merimee, French ambassador to the UN in the 1990s, admitted receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Iraq. A former French Interior Minister senator, Charles Pasqua, was formally investigated.

Significantly, Patrick Maugein, the chief executive officer of the SOCO oil company, was questioned about his acceptance of a ‘gift’ of 13 million barrels of oil. Maugein, a close supporter and friend of Jacques Chirac, was accused of being Iraq’s "conduit" to the president himself, an accusation still unproven.

Commercial Connections: No Peace for Oil

Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister and one of Saddam’s highest-ranking officials, told both United States and United Nations investigators that the "primary motive for French cooperation" was to secure lucrative oil deals when UN sanctions were lifted. Considerations of oil do indeed appear to have played a large part in France’s opposition to war. 

Before the war, France was the most favoured trading partner of the middle-Eastern dictatorship. A quarter of the arms equipping the Iraqi army were French supplied (France was its largest supplier of arms after the former USSR and Le Monde newspaper has calculated that during the Eighties, 40% of the French arms industry was devoted to just one customer, Saddam Hussein). 

In turn, France became the largest customer of Iraqi oil. Iraq has an estimated 150 billion to 250 billion barrels of as yet unproven oil, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. These reserves are critically important to Total Fina Elf, the hugely influential French energy giant. The company had existing multibillion-dollar oil contracts with Saddam, but because of UN resolutions, these contracts were not signed and could not be executed until sanctions were lifted. In 2002, even as the Coalition closed in on the Iraqi regime, Total successfully negotiated an agreement to develop the Majnoun and Bin Umar oilfields, which contain 35 billion barrels of oil; more than three times Total’s current reserves.

Total Elf Fina is the world’s fourth-largest publicly traded oil company. Its biggest shareholder is Power Corp of Canada (it also has a major stake in BNP Paribas) whose chairman is French-Canadian billionaire Paul Desmarais. His brother, Andre, sits on the Total board. Before the war, Total expressed its “extreme concern” that its oil contracts were with the Saddam regime and that, in the event of a new government in Baghdad, they might be repudiated. 

To complete the connection, Jacques Chirac spent summer holidays in the Desmarais’ compound near Montreal. Other regular guests included the then French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, and Nicolas Sakorzy, France's former Finance Minister.


Total Coverage: In 2005, after regime change in Iraq, French investigators from the French justice ministry raided Total’s headquarters in Paris, investigating claims by Total’s former head of operations, Jean-Michel Tournier , that that the company had used a Geneva-based firm, Teliac SA, to funnel bribes to “certain beneficiaries” in return for “political coverage to protect our interests... in Iraq”. The investigation continues.

Iraq and the Ivory Coast: “No Connection”: In September 2002, as the United States was contemplating sending troops into Iraq, the French were sending actual troops into the Ivory Coast, one of its former colonies. They were there to enforce a peace deal between rebel forces and those of France’s client president (one in a long line of stooges propped up by Paris), Laurent Gbagbo, that had been brokered by the French foreign ministry. But Gbagbo thought the French had given him a raw deal and, in resumed fighting, his forces killed nine French soldiers. The French then destroyed the tiny Ivorian air force on the ground in an air strike. In demonstrations that followed, 70 Ivorians were killed and over 1,000 injured by French troops firing on unarmed crowds. In a move which further infuriated the Ivorians, the French chief of the general staff dismissed claims of a ‘massacre’, only admitting that his troops might have “wounded or killed a few people”. Disturbances against "foreign interference" became widespread amongst the indigenous population directed against the large French expatriate community that runs France’s oil interests in the country. In 2004 – two years after their entrance to the country – the French were finally given official United Nations mandate to be there. Additional UN troops were sent to help the increasingly beleaguered 4000 Foreign Legion forces restore order. Accusations of routine atrocities against the French army are now surfacing. Three army captains have already testified to military authorities that in one May 2005 incident, a French colonel, Eric Burgaud, congratulated his men when they told him of the death of an Ivorian, suffocated to death with a plastic bag inside a French armoured vehicle. The officers also swore when they reported the incident to Burgaud’s commanding officer, General Poncet, he tried to buy their silence by promising them medals. 


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