France has desperately and publicly sought a peaceful solution of the Iraqi crisis with a sole strategic goal: strong influence if not control of the world’s future leading oil reserves.
At the same time, French President Jacques Chirac has consolidated his status as heir of former President Charles De Gaulle’s policy of independence from the United States.
The Iraqi government remembered Chirac’s predecessor Francois Mitterrand’s opposition to allied action to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait, before ultimately joining the Desert Storm coalition, and thus suspected France would eventually not use its veto power to block a second U.N. resolution. With good reason: If it were to have a stake in postwar oil developments, France must have realized it needed to be seen as a supporter of the “coalition of the willing.”
Although the veto option did not materialize, opponents of the Iraqi regime accuse France of duplicity, citing opposition to use of force against Saddam’s regime as a prime example. They see the French challenge to U.S. hegemony as propaganda for Arab consumption, in an attempt to divert attention from France’s own objectives in Iraq.
Opposition leaders accuse France of freely violating international law and the U.N. charter when it comes to safeguarding its interests and argue that Paris’ opposition to war was solely to avert their good friend and client Saddam Hussein’s ouster.
They point to a quarter of a century of such close relations that Baghdad generously contributed to Chirac’s election campaigns and made annual donations to the Gaullist Rassemblement pour La Republique political party, founded by Chirac.
Citing mutual public declarations of admiration made by the two leaders during Chirac’s 1975 trip to Baghdad as prime minister, a visit that ushered in the golden age in French-Iraqi relations. Shortly thereafter, France provided financial and technical assistance for the Ozirak, Iraq’s first nuclear reactor. Israel eventually bombed the Ozirak, keeping Saddam from having a nuclear offensive capability during the Gulf War in 1990-91. At the time, Chirac’s critics called him “Jacques Ozirak,” much as now U.S. commentators have taken to referring to the French President as “Jacques Iraq.”
Following Chirac’s 1975 visit, Iraq became the leading buyer of French arms, as well as France’s main oil supplier. In fact from 1980 until Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, exports to Iraq and Saudi Arabia accounted for 75 percent of France’s total arms sales, with the United States eventually taking the lead in Saudi Arabia.
The situation has been further complicated by a struggle between France and Russia over commercial dominance in Iraq. France was strongly criticized by Baghdad last year when it agreed to the U.N. imposing “smart sanctions” against Iraq. At the time, the Iraqi newspaper Babel, run by Saddam’s eldest son Uday, warned France its stance endangered French oil “interests and privileges” in Iraq.
France’s leading oil company, Total Elf, which has held exclusive negotiating rights for the huge Majnoun and Bin Omar oil fields, was about to sign new contracts late last year, prior to the Iraqi oil minister being dismissed for canceling contracts with Russia. In a bid to recoup its position, the Chirac regime has been the sole major European country refusing to receive Iraqi opposition leaders or hold official discussions with them.
Thus the diplomatic dilemma for Jacques Chirac: Having viewed French interests better served with a friendly Saddam Hussein in power, they have rightly feared the U.S.-led Coalition would topple the Iraqi despot. And with good reason.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian and journalist who currently serves as editor of UPI’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. This was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.