France says report's bribe claims are bid to smear Chirac

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Washington and London have been accused of a concerted effort to smear France in an attempt to distract from the main conclusions of America's official report on Iraq's non-existent weapons programmes.

A section of the 1,000-page report by the chief US weapons inspector in Iraq contains allegations about Baghdad's attempts to bribe and subvert French politicians in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq last year.

The war went ahead after France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, threatened to veto military action, saying that more time was needed for the UN inspection effort, and fearing that war would destabilise the region.

The report does not suggest that such bribes were ever actually offered or accepted, but rather that Iraqi intelligence had told Saddam Hussein they had "targeted" France for treatment of this kind.

Efforts appeared to be under way yesterday to draw public attention away from the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by suggesting that senior figures in France and Russia - which was also anti-war - may have been paid to support Saddam's regime. The ultra-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose name is on the list, repeated his denial that he benefited from Saddam's bribes yesterday.

The report also partially repeats a list naming figures from all over the world - including a French oilman said to be close to the French President, Jacques Chirac - who received preferential treatment in the allocation of oil export licences.

However, unlike the first list published by the Iraqi newspaper al-Mada in January, which detailed the beneficiaries of a kickback scheme devised by Saddam, this one carries the official approval of the US authorities.

All the American names, and all but one of the UN names, have vanished. The names of US companies and individuals had been removed "because of US privacy laws".

The report - and intensive American and British official and unofficial spinning of the report - concentrated instead on the French and Russian figures on the list, including the former French interior minister Charles Pasqua and Patrick Maugein, head of the Soco International oil company, said to be a friend of President Chirac.

Saddam used a secret voucher system within the framework of the UN's oil-for-food programme to reward those "willing to co-operate with Iraq to subvert UN sanctions", the report notes.

The report says M. Maugein, who received vouchers for 13 million barrels of oil, was "considered a conduit to Chirac", although it adds that this was "not confirmed".

M. Pasqua, once a close associate of M. Chirac, has been a marginal figure in French politics, excluded from the President's inner councils for almost a decade. M. Maugein is an oil man who could legitimately have sought contracts under the oil-for-food programme with Iraq. Both men have previously denied taking any money from Iraqi oil export licences.

The report also says Iraqi intelligence identified "ministers and politicians, journalists, and business people" who could help Iraq in its prime goal of lifting the UN sanctions. The report also suggests that French businessmen were interested in sanctions-busting, saying that it had found evidence of procurement transactions that included "negotiations for possible WMD-related mobile laboratories".

The French government reacted angrily to the accusations in the Duelfer report yesterday. The allegations had already been denied by the individuals and companies concerned and the French government had no reason to believe that they were true, said the French foreign ministry spokesman Hervé Ladsous.

A senior official in the foreign ministry said that he thought that France was the victim of a clumsy smear campaign. "If there were French individuals who were involved in corrupt dealings with Iraq, they should be investigated," the official said. "But to suggest that there was a concerted bribing of French politicians is absurd. You only have to look at what is happening in Iraq every day of the week to see why there was no support for the war in France last year."