PARIS, JAN. 20 -- President Francois Mitterrand indicated tonight that France would soon join its Persian Gulf coalition partners in direct attacks on Iraq, expanding the scope of a military policy that previously had sought to limit the extent of French action to Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
Mitterrand, in his first public remarks since U.S., British and other allied aircraft began pounding targets in Iraq early Thursday, said in a television interview that he was angered by accounts suggesting that the French air force was "working half-time" because of a pre-offensive tactical and political decision that restricted its activities to targets in Kuwait.
"We have not ruled out going into Iraq," Mitterrand said, adding that both French air and ground forces may take part in action there. But he strongly dismissed any notion of targeting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein personally as a means of bringing the conflict to a quick end. "The essential objective is the liberation of Kuwait," he said. "There can be no aim against any individual."
Mitterrand called Saddam a dictator and an aggressor, but he stressed that France was not engaged in a battle against Islam or the Iraqi people. "If Saddam renounces his war, I will be one of the first to say, 'Let's talk peace,' " he said.
The initial French gulf policy, as enunciated by Mitterrand, had been designed to keep French actions clearly within the bounds of United Nations resolutions that aim for the liberation of Kuwait and not the destruction of Iraq. Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said last week that this meant France would focus its attacks strictly against targets in Kuwait.
Mitterrand's disavowal of that view tonight reflects a strong desire to stay aligned with the international coalition against Iraq and to rectify misunderstandings that have arisen in recent days on both the diplomatic and military fronts. Under a protocol signed hours before hostilities broke out, France's independent military forces in the gulf region can be placed under U.S. command for "predetermined missions" of a specific duration.
But France also hopes to maintain a possible role as a mediator in any settlement of the conflict by adopting a posture against Iraq that could be seen by Arabs as less aggressive than that of its coalition partners. Besides its traditional close ties with many Arab countries, including former colonies in North Africa, there are an estimated 4 million Moslems living in France whose political sentiments the government does not wish to neglect.
The restrictive French doctrine aroused much controversy, both here and on the battlefield. Senior French officers in the gulf reportedly have been unhappy with the restraints, which they contended would lead to more casualties among their troops than necessary. Air strikes at installations in Kuwait, they contend, represent some of the most hazardous duty of the campaign, as French pilots swooping low over munitions depots outside Kuwait City encounter heavy machine-gun fire.
Opposition politicians also criticized the policy, saying it provided a form of sanctuary for Iraq and was not winning any points for moderation from France's North African neighbors that had shown sympathy for Iraq. "Why strike the country under occupation yet spare the aggressor?" asked former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, now a member of the European parliament. "What would have happened in World War II if the United States decided only to attack France and not strike inside Germany?"
Gerard Longuet, president of the centrist Republican Party, said "a conditional engagement, limited only to Kuwait, is incomprehensible, ineffective and unacceptable. It also has no political virtue."
The Socialist government, sensitive to an antiwar constituency within its own party, had seemed convinced that the restrictive military doctrine and France's eleventh-hour diplomatic efforts to explore a peaceful solution before war erupted was keeping public opinion on its side.
Indeed, the results of the latest opinion polls suggest that the government had won strong backing for its positions. One survey indicates that 72 percent of the French people approved of Mitterrand's handling of the crisis. Another poll concluded that 65 percent of the population backs French participation in combat against Iraq.
Jean Fleury, the French air force chief of staff, said French Jaguar fighter-bombers today destroyed several Exocet ship-killing missile sites and mobile Scud missile launchers in Kuwait during three bombing raids. A fourth attack was called off because of heavy cloud cover. "The battle of the skies is going in our favor," Fleury said, stressing the need for patience until "absolute mastery of the skies" can be achieved. "It is better to take the time to destroy all their defenses rather than engage our ground troops in bad conditions."
Fleury said that while the intensive allied bombing raids had greatly diminished Iraq's air capability, the Iraqis "still have some planes, and it is possible they will stage raids here and there. But the military effectiveness of such action is now quite weak."