France could spare some 5,000 soldiers for an operation in Iraq (search) but has received no orders to prepare for such a mission, the chief of the country's armed forces suggested in an interview made available Saturday.

Gen. Henri Bentegeat was referring Washington's request for soldiers to help stabilize Iraq. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) said last week that the United States "would be happy to have troops from a wide variety of countries, including France."

France already has 15,000 troops deployed in operations outside France, from the Balkans, to Afghanistan to Africa, Bentegeat said in an interview published in the Sunday paper Le Journal du Dimanche. It was made available Saturday.

French military planners foresee about 20,000 soldiers for external missions, he said, indicating 5,000 troops are hypothetically available for a mission in Iraq. But France has made clear it would send soldiers to Iraq only under a U.N. mandate, a position Bentegeat reiterated in the interview.

"I am waiting for the chief of state [President Jacques Chirac (search)] to give me a mission to study an eventual deployment in Iraq," the general added. "For the moment, it is not on the agenda."

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin spelled out the French position in a newspaper interview published Thursday.

An eventual French role "could only be envisaged within the framework of a United Nations peacekeeping force," under a specific mandate from the U.N. Security Council, de Villepin told Le Figaro.

"For us, it would suffice that the political transition in Iraq is placed under the responsibility of the United Nations," the foreign minister said.

France, joined by Germany and Russia, led the effort to avoid the U.S.-led war in Iraq, where the United States currently has about 150,000 troops. Bentegeat said that despite the diplomatic fallout between Washington and Paris, there has never been tension on the military front.

"Our relations remain excellent," he told Le Journal du Dimanche.

He said French special forces would be sent to Afghanistan "in the coming days" on a "very confidential mission" surrounding the fight against the Al Qaeda terror network and the Taliban.

Those forces, he said, "will be placed directly under operational American control and will remain under my operational command."

He provided no further information about the mission.