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It's been a long wait, but France may be within days of starting to reap the commercial rewards of being Iraq's best friend in the West since the United Nations trade embargo began in 1990.

Iraqi Oil Minister Amir Rasheed said Tuesday it would be "one or two weeks at the most" before Iraq signed its first crude oil supply contracts since last month's agreement to relax the embargo by allowing Baghdad to exchange oil for food and medicines.He indicated French companies would be given priority in both the purchase of Iraqi oil and the sale to Baghdad of food and medicines.

"Friendly countries who have supported us, like France and Russia, will certainly be given priority," he said.

He was optimistic that the embargo would be lifted completely "before the end of this year."

Rasheed's comments came during a five-day visit to Paris in which he met representatives of some of France's largest companies and French Industry Minister Franck Borotra.

The Iraqi oil minister arrived in Paris on Saturday after last week's meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna. That meeting ended by raising OPEC's oil production ceiling from 24.52 million barrels a day to 25.033 million barrels a day and allocating all the increase to Iraq.

Under the U.N. agreement, Baghdad will soon be able to export $2 billion worth of oil every six months.

Among the French groups with most to gain from a complete lifting of the embargo are the oil companies Total and Elf Aquitaine, which have held talks over the past few years with the Baghdad government about oil field development deals in Iraq. Rasheed indicated this week negotiations were at a "very advanced" stage and Baghdad was ready to sign contracts worth around $4 billion.

But French companies won't be able to implement any contracts until the United Nations is convinced Baghdad has abandoned all its plans to build weapons of mass destruction.

It's traditional to date the start of France's friendship with Iraq to 1974 when then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac struck up a relationship with the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in an exchange of official visits. By then Iraq was already an important source of oil for France. Under Chirac, France agreed to supply Iraq with the Osirak experimental nuclear reactor that was later bombed by Israel.

France's right-wing governments of the 1970s also began a large program of arms sales to Iraq. During Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s, France was an important arms supplier to the Baghdad regime, providing Dassault jet fighters, Gazelle assault helicopters and other items of military hardware.

In January 1995, France was rebuked by the U.S. and Britain after it said it was soon to re-establish a limited diplomatic presence in Iraq.

A growing French commercial presence followed the diplomatic initiative. Elf and Total, for example, recently opened permanent offices in Baghdad, and French trade delegations have been among the most frequent visitors to the Iraqi capital over the past year or so.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)