Israel tries to reassure people Saddam poses little threat


MIDDLE EAST: Israel's leaders tried to reassure their citizens yesterday that they had little to fear from President Saddam Hussein, but the newspapers were full of reports highlighting the Iraqi leader's purported preparation of "dirty bombs" for use against Israel, and the lack of protective equipment.

In an interview with Army Radio, the Chief of Staff, Gen Moshe Ya'alon, asserted that the Israeli defences were the best in the world, and that the military was capable of ensuring that "nothing will reach the area at all" - an apparent allusion to the 39 Iraqi Scud missiles that Israel was incapable of intercepting in the Gulf War and which caused widespread damage.

"We are well prepared both in terms of defence and also in terms of an offensive response if there will be a need," he said. The Ha'aretz daily, citing "Western intelligence analysts", said President Saddam had fitted out several Soviet aircraft for "suicide missions against Israel", in which they might launch rudimentary radioactive devices, or "dirty bombs", against Israeli cities.

It claimed that there was concern that Iraq might order terror cells to fire anti-aircraft missiles at civilian airliners using Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. Last year, a group of West Bank Palestinians, from an Iraqi-sponsored organisation called the Arab Liberation Front, was thwarted shortly before allegedly attempting such an attack.

Ha'aretz said that the Iraqi President, who has been transferring tens of thousands of dollars to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, had recently intensified efforts to channel arms and cash to the Palestinian Authority and to West Bank and Gaza-based militant groups.

Tabloid Ma'ariv said a quarter of Israelis were not equipped with gas-mask kits for use in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack.

The media also highlighted a claim in London's Sunday Telegraph that British and American troops were already deployed in western Iraq, attempting to prevent any Scud missile fire from there. In the Gulf War, Israel drew up plans to send commandos to do the same, but ultimately sat out the conflict, and absorbed the Scud strikes with no military response, in order not to destabilise the US-Arab coalition against Iraq.

In the absence of such a coalition this time, Gen Ya'alon and others have made clear that Israel would have no compunction about retaliating, and Israel's leaders have made plain their support for a move to oust President Saddam.