Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he expects to find out about French support for Saddam Hussein's government from information recovered by coalition forces now working in Iraq.
"France has historically had a very close relationship with Iraq," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon. "My understanding is that it continued right up until the outbreak of the war. What took place thereafter, we'll find out."
When asked whether France is harboring Iraqi officials or had helped Iraqi leaders flee Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld responded by saying: "I've read those reports, but I don't have anything I can add to them."
Several members of Congress, including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have asked the Bush administration to investigate reports first disclosed by The Washington Times that France covertly supplied passports to fleeing Iraqi officials around the time of the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces on April 9.
U.S. intelligence officials told The Times that France provided passports to an unknown number of Iraqi leaders in Syria, who then used the passports to go to Western Europe. The passports helped the Iraqis escape capture from U.S. and allied forces.
The French government has denied that it provided visas to fleeing Iraqis.
The intelligence on the passports coincides with other intelligence reports indicating that a French company helped Baghdad earlier this year by providing spare parts for Iraq's Mirage jets and Gazelle helicopters.
Also, other intelligence reports linked a French exporter to the export from China to Iraq of a chemical used in making missile fuel.
Intelligence officials have also said that France, along with Russia, attempted to conclude new deals with Baghdad for oil in the days before U.S. military action began against Saddam's forces.
The Pentagon has dispatched special intelligence exploitation teams of up to 2,000 people to Iraq to search for Saddam's hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons.
The teams also will look for leads that identify how Iraq was able to obtain military goods and weapons in violation of the United Nations arms embargo in place since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Mr. Rumsfeld said last month that finding out about Baghdad's arms acquisition was one of the remaining tasks for coalition forces in Iraq.
On Thursday, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies to investigate the French role in allowing Iraqi officials to escape.
Yesterday, Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, also wrote to Mr. Ridge seeking an investigation of whether the French government provided passports to fleeing Iraqi officials. Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, also is investigating the matter.