France, China and Syria all have a common reason for keeping American and British troops out of Iraq: The three nations may not want the world to discover that their nationals have been illicitly supplying Saddam Hussein with materials used in building long-range surface-to-surface missiles.
We are not talking about the short-range Al Samoud 2, which Hussein is ostentatiously destroying to help his protectors avert an invasion, nor his old mobile Scuds. The delivery system for mass destruction warheads requires a much more sophisticated propulsion system and fuels.
If you were running the Iraqi ballistic missiles project, where in the world would you go to buy the chemical that is among the best binders for solid propellant?
Answer: to 116 DaWu Road in Zibo, a city in the Shandong province of China, where a company named Qilu Chemicals is a leading producer of a transparent liquid rubber called hydroxy terminated polybutadiene, familiarly known in the advanced-rocket trade as HTPB.
But you wouldn't want the word "chemicals" to appear anywhere on the purchase because that might alert inspectors enforcing sanctions, so you employ a couple of cutouts. One is an import-export company with which Qilu Chemicals often does business.
To be twice removed from the source, you would turn to CIS Paris, a Parisian broker that is active in dealings of many kinds with Baghdad. Its director is familiar with the order but denies being the agent.
A shipment of 20 tons of HTPB _ the sale of which to Iraq is forbidden by U.N. resolutions and the oil-for-food agreement _ left China in August 2002 in a 40-foot container. It arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus (fortified by the Knights Templar in 1183, and the Mediterranean terminus for an Iraqi oil pipeline today) and was received there by a trading company that was an intermediary for the Iraqi missile industry, the end user. The HTPB was then trucked across Syria to Iraq.
Syria has no sophisticated missile-building program. What rocket weaponry it has comes off the shelf (and usually on credit) from Russia, so it therefore has no use for HTPB. But cash-starved Syria is the conduit for missile supplies to cash-flush Hussein, as this shipment demonstrates. We will have to wait to find out how much other weaponry, for what huge fees, Hussein has stored in currently uninspectable Syrian warehouses.
The French connection _ brokering the deal among the Chinese producer, the Syrian land transporter and the Iraqi buyer _ is no great secret to the world's arms merchants. French intelligence has long been aware of it. The requirement for a French export license as well as U.N. sanctions approval may have been averted by disguising it as a direct offshore sale from China to Syria.
I'm also told that a contract was signed last April in Paris for 5 tons of 99 percent unsymmetric dimethylhydrazine, another advanced missile fuel, which is produced by France's Societe Nationale des Poudres et Explosifs. In addition, Iraqi attempts to buy ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizer for solid propellant missiles, were successful, at least on paper. Both chemicals, like HTPB, require explicit approval by the U.N. Sanctions Committee before they can be sold to Iraq.
Perhaps a few intrepid members of the Chirac Adoration Society, formerly known as the French media, will ask France's lax export-control authorities about these shipments. U.N. inspectors looking at Iraq's El Sirat trading company might try to follow its affiliate, the Gudia Bureau, to dealings in Paris.
Is this account what journalists call a "keeper," one held back for publication at a critical moment, made more newsworthy by the Security Council debate? No; I've been poking around for only about a week, starting with data originating from an Arab source, not from the CIA.
This detail about the France-China-Syria-Iraq propellant collaboration makes for dull reading, but it reveals some of the motivation behind the campaign of those nations to suppress the truth. The truth, however, will out.
+ William Safire is a New York Times columnist. +
New York Times News Service