WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- The White House on Thursday denied administration officials were involved in a "disinformation" campaign to tar France as a collaborator with Iraq because of its opposition to U.S. military action to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.
The allegation was apparently implicit in a letter of complaint that, The Washington Post reported Thursday, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte was sending to the White House and Capitol Hill.
The letter was said to have detailed a number of instances in which U.S. news reports, quoting unidentified administration sources, accused France of having provided Iraq with equipment banned under U.N. sanctions and even helping high-ranking Iraq officials escape capture by U.S. forces by providing them with French travel documents at its embassy in Damascus, Syria.
France has vehemently denied all such allegations.
"I don't think there is any basis in fact to it," White House deputy spokesman Scott McClellan said of the alleged smear campaign.
"France is an ally. They are still friends of ours despite our differences."
U.S.-French relations hit the skids earlier this year when France not only opposed U.S. military action but also led efforts to block U.N. Security Council sanction for it. France also moved to block NATO from providing protective aid to fellow member Turkey to deter an attack against it from Baghdad in case Ankara threw its lot in with Washington and allowed U.S. military forces to use Turkey as a springboard in the impending war.
The U.S. public -- from television stand up comics to ordinary people in the street -- took French opposition as an act of treachery to a friend whose troops helped liberate the country from the Nazis in World War II.
On Capitol Hill, French fried potatoes were dubbed "freedom fries" after lawmakers objected to the original name of the dish in government cafeterias; calls were issued for a boycott of all things French; and every foible real or imagined became the butt of jokes.
Relations remained strained, with Paris reluctant to agree to a U.S. plan to lift economic sanctions against Iraq early next month.
France wants U.N. weapons inspectors to first certify Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction. It also wants rebuilding of Iraq to be conducted under international auspices, not under the lead of the United States and Britain.
"I think Secretary (of State Colin) Powell stated it well recently when he talked about how the United States and France have been in marriage counseling for the past 200 years," McClellan said.
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington was not immediately available to confirm existence of the letter, and McClellan said he did not know of it.