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France May Forgive Some Iraqi Debts - 2003-12-15

France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, says France will look into the possibility canceling part of Iraq's hefty debt to the country.

Mr. de Villepin's remarks were made during a joint news conference in the French capital with members of Iraq's Governing Council. The Iraqis are in Paris to meet also with French President Jacques Chirac and leaders of the French business community.

Mr. de Villepin said French officials would work with other members of the so-called Paris Club of creditor nations, to see if some kind of agreement on the Iraqi debt issue can be reached next year.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iraq borrowed a staggering $120 billion from overseas lenders during the regime of Saddam Hussein. Of this, an estimated $40 billion is debt and arrears to the 19 Paris Club members. The club includes three of the top critics of the war on Iraq - France, Germany and Russia.

According to the Paris Club, Iraq owes France roughly $3.7 billion, an amount that does not include millions more in overdue interest payments.

Foreign Minister de Villepin's remarks on the debt spell good news for former U.S. secretary of state James Baker, who is to arrive Tuesday in Paris. Mr. Baker is scheduled for talks with President Chirac as part of a U.S. mission to try to persuade European and Russian creditors to forgive Iraq's debt.

The Bush administration drew criticism last week by announcing Mr. Baker's trip in tandem with a decision to bar anti-war countries from competing for Iraqi reconstruction bids. Russia suggested it might not forgive Iraq's debt.

But all three countries congratulated the United States for capturing Saddam Hussein at a farmhouse just outside his hometown of Tikrit.

After meeting with the delegation from the Iraqi Governing Council, Foreign Minister de Villepin said his country was ready to work with its allies in helping to reconstruct Iraq. He also said that in liaison with the other creditors, France believes there could be an accord in 2004.