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France quits watch over northern Iraq

France is pulling out of allied surveillance operations over northern Iraq following what it says is a change in the brief. A foreign ministry statement in Paris yesterday said the decision had been taken because the "humanitarian aspect originally envisaged" for the mission had been dropped.

"Operation Provide Comfort" will be continued jointly by the other participants, the United States, Turkey and Britain. It was started in 1991 after the end of the Gulf War with the joint aim of protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq and ensuring that Iraq observed the terms of the cease-fire. Its mandate expires on 31 December, after which France will no longer be involved.

The Turkish parliament met on Christmas Day to consider whether it should continue in the light of changed circumstances. These include Saddam Hussein's attack on Arbil, which forced the withdrawal of some of the multinational ground forces in northern Iraq, and fighting between the Kurdish factions which the international operation was protecting. Some of these factions went over to Saddam's side.

While allowing Provide Comfort to continue from its base at Incirlik, the Turks still refuse British aid agencies access to northern Iraq. They have also discontinued the provision for ground reconnaissance. French officials had argued that without this provision, the operation would be purely military and as such France would be unlikely to approve it.

France's concern to improve its diplomatic and commercial relations with Iraq is believed to lie at the heart of its decision. Paris was recently instrumental in persuading Baghdad to meet UN conditions for recommencing oil exports.

Heavy over-spending on its overseas military budget, which includes participation in the expensive peace-keeping operation in Bosnia, may be another factor. Air force training flights were recently suspended because the annual fuel budget had been exhausted. France is retrenching its military presence around the world because its forces are over-stretched and it must pay for the costly transition to an all-professional military on the British model to which President Chirac has committed himself.

The French decision was seized on by Iraq yesterday as marking a split in the six-and-a-half-year-old Gulf War coalition. Although the operation is nominally humanitarian, it has clearly become a surveillance mission enabling the Gulf War allies to hit Saddam Hussein any time he moves.

The British Foreign Office yesterday said it "noted the French position" but that the air surveillance operation continued to do useful work and should continue. In practice, France, like Britain, provides only a small air force - six planes - as its contribution to the operation, which is overwhelmingly American. France's contribution to the operation over southern Iraq, south of 33rd parallel, remains unaffected.

Although the French Foreign Ministry said France continued to enjoy "excellent" relations with Washington, France's decision to pull out of Operation Provide Comfort has annoyed the Clinton administration.

France and the US have clashed recently over command arrangements in Nato's Southern Command, based in Naples. The French said a "European" - probably a Frenchman - should have command. Other recent differences between the two allies range from the Middle East to the handling of the Zaire refugee crisis, the US-led ousting of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as UN Secretary General and what Washington insists was a snub by France to the outgoing Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.