FRANCE CONSIDERED PROTECTING TARIQ AZIZ – intelligence chief’s notes reveal

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Three months before the US invasion of Iraq, France was considering protecting senior figures from President Saddam Hussein’s government, according to a senior intelligence officer’s notes published last Monday.

Extracts taken from the private diaries of General Philippe Rondot, a former adviser on intelligence and special operations in President Jacques Chirac’s government, were reprinted in the French daily Liberation.

In a passage dated December 3rd, 2002, the general refers to an ‘agreement in principle to “recover” if necessary Tariq Aziz and Al-Rafai’, referring to the then Iraqi foreign minister and a prominent Ba’ath Party politician.

Three weeks later on December 23, Rondot met Chirac’s chief of staff and afterwards noted: ‘Iraq situation report: exfiltration of personalities: ex Tariq Aziz, sources, engineers. My trip to the zone, mid-January.’

Then on January 2nd, Rondot met the then French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, best known at the time for his fierce opposition to the US invasion threat, at the United Nations Security Council.

‘Informed of my projects on S. Hussein. Understand that we should recover Iraqis seeking to “shelter” in the embassy, sensitive researchers, the case of Tariq Aziz,’ noted the general after the meeting, according to Liberation.

Rondot apparently drew up a list of the Iraqi officials and engineers that France should seek to protect.

Some of the names were considered ‘sensitive’ by his political masters, but on January 12 he reported having received a green light for at least part of his plan.

He wrote: ‘Iraqi ops: agreement on my operational propositions.’

On January 15, he wrote to Villepin to update him on the plan.

He informed Villepin: ‘The direct contacts that I have with the ministry of defence and various Syrian agencies lead me to believe that Syria could serve as a launch base for various clandestine operations in the Iraqi theatre.’

Rondot remained in contact with his Iraqi sources, and with the US Central Intelligence Agency, but, after the invasion of March 20, Aziz in fact ended up surrendering himself to US forces on April 24.

The foreign minister, a member of Iraq’s Christian minority, has since been tried by the puppet Iraq post-invasion government, convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to two jail terms of fifteen and seven years.

Liberation said it has access to many of Rondot’s notes from the period between 1997 and 2005 when he was an intelligence officer attached to the French defence ministry, and that they reveal several secrets.

In addition to the idea of saving Aziz, the extracts published on Monday suggest that the CIA sent France a list of Al-Qaeda militants marked for assassination and that Paris considered taking part in the programme.

According to the general’s account, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Chirac considered but rejected the idea that French agents could take part in the ‘neutralisation’ or ‘kidnapping’ of Al-Qaeda targets.

Leaks from the notes began to appear in the press after they were seized by magistrates probing the Clearstream scandal, in which Villepin is accused of manipulating intelligence data to smear current President Nicolas Sarkozy.

• The news editor for the online Syrian daily, Al-Watan, in an interview commented on the recent tensions between Iraq and Syria, against the backdrop of accusations that Syria has been harbouring suspected terrorists.

Editor Janblat Shakay was asked whether puppet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s promise that ‘those who harbour criminals will eventually pay the price’ poses a military threat against Syria.

Shakay said: ‘The prevailing opinion in Syria is that any statements coming from Baghdad at present are part of the internal political game and nothing more.

‘For Syria is still dealing calmly with the issue and the escalation; it is trying to calm matters down and is receiving delegates from Iran, Turkey and Jordan in a bid to resolve this crisis.’

As for whether the ‘thousands of Iraqi and army units that have been deployed along the border with Syria constitute a military provocation to Syria,’ Shakay said that they do not.

He noted that Syria has always asked that Iraqi and US forces share the responsibility of securing the border with Iraq.

He added ‘I believe this (deployment) will be welcomed because it will contain illegal movement across the borders.’

It was put to Shakay that ‘these troops were not deployed out of good intentions’ as evidenced by Iraq’s request that a UN tribunal be set up to investigate ‘Syria’s support for the 19 August bombings in Iraq’.

He replied that ‘Syria believes that Iraq’s quest to internationalise the matter is an internal Iraqi matter’.

Shakay added ‘I do not think that Iraq’s request will be quickly met by the Security Council.

‘The reality on the ground is different today.

‘Iraq is still under occupation and under Chapter VII, and launching an international investigation or tribunal will also hold the United States accountable for many of the actions committed by occupation forces and security firms like Blackwater.’

He predicted that ‘the United States, which called on Damascus and Baghdad to resort to dialogue from the start, will not welcome the internationalisation of this affair.’

Meanwhile, Baha al-A’raji, a leading figure in the Al-Sadr bloc in the puppet Iraqi parliament said that the government’s recent escalation of tensions with Syria is aimed at making political gains and covering the real weaknesses in the Iraqi security agencies.

Al-A’raji, who chairs the parliament’s legal committee, added that the accusations levelled against Syria against the backdrop of Baghdad’s recent bombings are electoral propaganda in favour of a certain political party.

This was since the results of the investigations, which the Interior Ministry conducted, point to facts that differ from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s statements or to what is being reported in the media.

He added that the government tried to shift the attention of Iraqis from the real security weakness to other parties.

• Last Saturday, six people, including four Iraqi soldiers. were wounded when an explosive charge blast targeted an Iraqi Army patrol in Al-A’zamiyah city in northern Baghdad.

A security source said the blast targeted a military patrol near Antar Square in the centre of Al-A’zamiyah, wounding four of its personnel and two civilians.