President Francois Mitterrand expects war to break out in the Persian Gulf soon and has decided to allow French forces in the region to operate under U.S. command, the International Herald Tribune reported Thursday.
Quoting an unnamed source, the newspaper said Mitterrand thought war was inevitable because of the continuing intransigence on the part of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.On Wednesday, the satirical but reliable newspaper Le Canard Enchaine reported that Mitterrand had told a number of visitors an American attack was imminent. The newspaper said the French leader had cited a time frame between Oct. 25 and Nov. 6 but added this may have changed to allow French hostages to leave Iraq.
Asked to comment on the reports, a spokeswoman for the presidential Elysee Palace said, "The president had not expressed himself in those terms under any circumstances, public or private."
She added, "We do not have any information that allows us to say that the United States is going to attack" and classified as "absurd" the report French forces would be placed under U.S. command in case of war.
French media reported Thursday that the estimated 330 French citizens being held against their will in Iraq and Kuwait will return to Paris Saturday. The reports said the 67 hostages that had been placed around strategic locations as a shield against military attack had already been transferred to Baghdad.
The International Herald Tribune quoted its source as saying the likelihood of war in the gulf had removed Mitterrand's doubts about allowing the 5,500 French soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from operating under the command of the U.S. Army.
If so, the decision would represent a major break from the Gaullist tradition of never allowing French troops to operate under the command of another government. It is also certain to fuel anger from the extreme right, which has sharply criticized French involvement in the crisis.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Thursday the United States will continue its military buildup in the Persian Gulf, perhaps by sending more heavy armor to Saudi Arabia while bringing lighter units home.
"We're not at the point yet where we want to stop adding forces," Cheney said on "CBS This Morning" and ABC's "Good Morning America." He declined to say how many troops might be added to the U.S. deployment, which now totals 220,000 troops in and around Saudi Arabia.
His comments came as President Bush faced several decisions about the makeup of the gulf forces and as his top uniformed commander, Gen. Colin Powell, headed home from talks with ground commanders in Saudi Arabia. The talks included discussion of adding more offensive might to the U.S. forces.
The U.S.-led multinational forces now total more than 300,000 but still fall far short of the estimated 430,000 Iraqi troops deployed in heavily fortified positions in occupied Kuwait and southern Iraq.
Pentagon planners, noting a recent decline in polls of public support for the desert deployment, have urged Cheney and other senior administration officials to articulate their reasons clearly should they decide to expand the force.
Cheney said the administration still hoped for a peaceful solution to the standoff with Saddam but wanted to make sure its force in the region offered Bush the option of ordering an offensive.