French leaders today assured Iraq of continuing economic and military support despite diplomatic overtures by the new conservative government toward Iran.
The French reiteration of support for Baghdad came at the end of a two-day visit here by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. It appeared designed to quell speculation that France was prepared to sacrifice its privileged relationship with Iraq in order to secure the release of nine French hostages seized by pro-Iranian Shiite Moslem groups in Beirut.
During his talks with French leaders, Aziz is understood to have raised the possibility of arms deliveries to make up for Iraq's losses in its 5 1/2-year war with Iran. Informed French sources said the Iraqi request was for $140 million worth of mortars and shells.
France has already moved to appease the pro-Iranian kidnapers by improving its dialogue with Iran and cracking down on the activities of political exiles opposed to the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Prime Minister Jacques Chirac made clear in a television interview yesterday that France was not prepared to change its entire Middle East policy for the sake of normalization of relations with Iran.
Aziz held meetings with both Chirac, widely regarded as the architect of France's pro-Iraqi policy while prime minister in 1975, and President Francois Mitterrand. French officials said he was told by both that France would fulfill its commitments to Iraq.
Asked by reporters about French attempts to improve relations with Tehran, Aziz replied: "We don't speak to our friends about their relations with third countries."
Economic losses caused by the war with Iran and the fall in oil prices have forced Iraq to delay repayment of debts of more than $3 billion to France. The French group Thomson, which has been asked to supply most of the new arms, is reported to have insisted that a quarter of the price be paid in cash on the signing of the contract.
France is the largest arms supplier to Iraq after the Soviet Union. French officials have justified their support for Baghdad on both economic and political grounds, arguing that the West has an interest in preventing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the conservative Persian Gulf states.
It remains to be seen whether France can improve relations with Iran while maintaining its old ties with Iraq. The complex negotiations for the release of the hostages appear to have reached a delicate stage, with Iran denying that it has any influence over the kidnapers.
France is also involved in separate negotiations with Tehran for the repayment of $1.5 billion in Iranian financial investments seized after the Islamic revolution.
Since coming to power in March, Chirac has made clear that freeing the hostages is one of his main priorities as prime minister.