News In Brief

Controversial French jets arrive in Iraq amid threats

After weeks of suspense and controversy, five French Super Etendard jets reportedly flew this weekend from their Brittany base to Iraq. French Defense Ministry officials refused to confirm or deny the reports by state-owned French radio, continuing their silence on the matter.

The sales are particularly sensitive. Iraq is said to want to use the French-built planes, equipped with Exocet missiles, to attack Iranian oil terminals. Iran has said it would respond to such attacks by closing the Gulf oil route.

In recent days, there were signs that France was reconsidering the Super Etendard deal. The planes were originally supposed to have been delivered in mid-September when Iraqi pilots and technicians finished their training in France. But the planes stayed in Britanny, as Iran stepped up its threats, and the US and other Western nations reportedly urged President Francois Mitterrand to cancel the sale.

Meanwhile, accounts had France negotiating with the Syrians on behalf of the Iraqis. In return for a pledge to delay the Super Etendard deal indefinitely, French diplomats were apparently trying to persuade the Syrians to open a pipeline, closed since April 1982, depriving Iraq of a crucial 1.2 million barrels a day in oil exports.

So far, though, the Syrians have kept the pipeline shut. Without its oil exports, Iraq's already precarious financial position has continued to worsen. As Iraq falters, the huge French financial investment in the country - the Iraqi debt to France is estimated as high as $7 billion - is jeopardized.

In the end, therefore, Mr. Mitterrand apparently decided that France's economic and political ties with Iraq were worth the risk of widening the Iraq-Iran conflict. The French argue that the jets will prop up Saddam Hussein's government by giving him the needed leverage to force Iran to negotiate a peace.

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