WASHINGTON – The French government gave members of Saddam Hussein's regime passports that would allow them to enter Europe and escape the coalition's hunt for top Iraqi officials, The Washington Times reported Tuesday.
U.S. intelligence officials told the Times that an unknown number of Iraqi regime members were given French passports by French officials in Syria.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
French passport holders are able to enter any European Union country without a visa, and are usually granted tourist visas upon entry to many other countries, including the United States.
More importantly, Iraqis holding French passports would be able to move freely among the 12 EU countries that are part of the Schengen agreement (search) on unrestricted travel.
Britain, Denmark and Ireland are not part of the Schengen pact, but French passport holders can travel from Athens to Lisbon to Berlin without questioning, and can also fly to French overseas possessions (search) in the Caribbean, South America and Pacific and Indian oceans.
The reports have angered Pentagon, State Department and intelligence officials in Washington, the Times reported, because it indicates French willingness to undermine the search for senior aides to Saddam.
"It made it very difficult to track these people," one official told the Times.
As U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad in the second week of April, many regime members were thought to have fled to Syria.
A second Bush administration official told the Times, "It's like Raoul Wallenberg (search) in reverse," a reference to the Swedish diplomat who issued travel documents to help Hungarian Jews avoid deportation to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. "Now you have the French helping the bad guys escape from us."
Nathalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington, told the Times that French authorities had not issued any visas or passports to Iraqi regime officials since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"France formally denies this type of allegation, which is not only contrary to reality but is intended to discredit our nation," she said. "It is certainly time for rumors of this type — totally unfounded and a dishonor to those who spread them — to stop."
The reports add fuel to the fire over allegations that Paris had been colluding with Baghdad before and during the coalition invasion of Iraq.
One report said a French company covertly sold military spare parts to Iraq in the weeks before the war. Another indicated that a French oil company had been working with a Russian oil firm to clinch a deal with Saddam's government at the same time.
The Times also said the French government had denied U.S. intelligence reports indicating that a Chinese chemical company used French and Syrian brokers to circumvent U.N. sanctions in providing Iraq with chemicals used in making missile fuel.
Pentagon officials were said to be frustrated that few of the most senior leaders identified on the list of top 55 officials of the Saddam regime had been captured.
Of those who are in U.S. custody — such as former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz (search) — few have given much information considered helpful. All those captured insist Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration remained optimistic that significant information will be uncovered.
"I never believed that we'd just tumble over weapons of mass destruction in that country," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News Sunday, echoing comments made by President Bush on Saturday.
"I'm not frustrated at all," Rumsfeld said later in another televised interview.
Sunday's capture of a top Iraqi biological-weapons scientist, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash (search), aka "Mrs. Anthrax," brings to 19 the number of senior Iraqi leaders who have been caught. U.S. officials hope Ammash can provide information detailing Iraq's banned weapons program.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that he was assured during weekend talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Damascus had turned over Iraqi officials it had been harboring, but he cautioned that the United States may be unaware of others.
"Some have been made available to us," Powell said on CBS' Face the Nation. "Let me put it that way: Who we knew were there are no longer there. They've been made available to us, and they will be before the bar of justice of the Iraqi people."
Powell said Syria has been "helpful" in the past two years in dealing with the war on terrorism, primarily through U.S. and Syrian intelligence liaisons. Numerous reports have detailed Syrian cooperation against Al Qaeda.
"This is the time for you to locate these individuals and turn them over to Iraqi justice and not allow Syria to become a haven for materials that might be coming out of Iraq still, or came out of Iraq or individuals who are trying to seek haven," Powell said he told Assad.
Asked on NBC's Meet the Press if Iraqi officials had fled to Syria, Rumsfeld said, "Oh, there's no question but that they did. Absolutely. ... Some left and went to Syria and stayed, and some have left Iraq, gone to Syria and transited to other countries."
Syria in the past several weeks has expelled more than 30 Iraqis, including many from Tikrit (search), Saddam's hometown, the Times reported.
After first granting sanctuary to former Iraqi intelligence official Farouk Hijazi (search), Syria turned him over to U.S. officials in Iraq.
Congress is considering legislation that would impose economic sanctions on Syria for its support of terrorism.