Europe, Headlines

POLITICS-FRANCE: Iraqi Hangover Clouds Ties with U.S.

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Dec 23 2003 (IPS) - The diplomatic tension that arose between France and the United States over the invasion of Iraq was put aside formally, but it is far from over.

Differences have arisen between the two countries over several issues recently. And somewhere in these differences, many analysts smell Iraq.

The United States blocked selection of a French installation last week for a major new nuclear experiment. The French in turn opened dormant investigations into dealings of the U.S. firm Halliburton that was headed until recently by Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The French nuclear institute Cadarache was one of two sites under consideration for the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER). This is an experiment for developing technology for nuclear fusion at extremely high temperatures to release high energy levels, the so-called energy of stars. The alternative site is Rokkasho in Japan.

The ITER project is being financed jointly by the European Union (EU), Russia, Canada, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States. The project is expected to cost 10 billion dollars.

The United States opted out of the project in 1999 but returned February this year as an influential player. Last week it secured the support of South Korea in blocking the selection of Cadarache.

Many scientists see Cadarache as the best site for the project. The institute which employs 4,300 scientists is at the cutting edge of nuclear technology and analysis of energy.

"I know for certain that the U.S. government wants to punish France for its diplomatic position on the Iraq crisis," French deputy Pierre Lellouche who is close to President Jacques Chirac said last week. Lellouche had counselled Chirac earlier not to oppose the United States over Iraq.

"George Bush Punishes France" ran a headline in the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. "During the ITER negotiations, the U.S. government led the opposition to Cadarache," its chief editor Jean-Claude Maurice wrote. "In the eyes of Washington, it is not good to be French right now."

The French are hitting back in their own way. Prosecutors have reopened an inquiry into Halliburton over its oil interests in Nigeria.

The inquiry which has been sleeping in the drawers for two years has suddenly gained momentum over the last few weeks. Nigerian officials and former executives from Technip, a French company allied with Halliburton’s subsidiary Kellog Brown & Root in gas fields in Bonny Island in Nigeria have been called in for questioning.

Prosecutor Renaud Van Ruymbeke, who has been investigating corruption in French oil affairs in Africa over several years, has established that 180 million dollars were paid between 1994 and 2001 to Jeffrey Tesler, a London-based lawyer associated with Halliburton and Cheney for more than 20 years.

In 1993, the Nigerian government granted exploitation rights on Bonny Island in the Niger river delta to a consortium formed by Kellog Brown & Root and the European oil giants Shell, TotalFina, and Agip.

The 180 million dollars were described officially as a fee for commercial counselling paid to Tri Star, a shell company registered in Gibraltar. French prosecutors say Tri Star was a front for Tesler. They say the commercial counselling did not take place, and that enrolment of the London lawyer was imposed by Halliburton upon its associates.

Tesler first gave a bank account in Geneva to receive the money, French prosecutors say. But he is reported to have changed this to another bank in Monaco after Swiss authorities began an inquiry into bank accounts of former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha.

Abacha, who died in 1998, was in charge when the dealings began.

Former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete told prosecutors that he could not understand the role played by Tesler. "Shell and KBR had direct links with our government, and didn’t need any commercial counselling, " Etete told the French prosecutor earlier this month.

Van Ruymbeke is considering proceedings against Cheney based on such statements. The prosecution is reported to be considering a charge of "misuse of public property", which is less than a charge of corruption.

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