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Israel more worried about unstable postwar Iraq than attack

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel's military establishment believes there is a "low probability" that Iraq will attack the Jewish state with biological or chemical weapons, but is concerned about instability after a U.S. war that ousts Saddam Hussein, a senior security official said Friday.

Israeli defense officials foresee a quick U.S. victory and detect little sentiment among the Iraqi military to use weapons of mass destruction. The security official discussed the multi-pronged Israeli analysis only on the condition of anonymity.

Among the Israeli conclusions:

_Iraq may still have a limited number of planes and missiles capable of attacking Israel, but Saddam is unlikely to order such an attack in the early days of a war because an Iraqi attack using weapons Baghdad has claimed it doesn't have would help unite a divided international community behind an American-led invasion.

_U.S.-led forces will cripple Iraq's capacity to hit Israel in the early days of the war, both through air strikes and by seizing control of western Iraq, the launching area in 1991 for Scud missile attacks on Israel.

_An ongoing campaign of U.S. "psychological warfare," which has threatened Iraq's military if it unleashes weapons of mass destruction, has already weakened Saddam's chain-of-command so that Iraqi officers would "escape the need" to obey a launch order.

_If the first three assumptions prove wrong, Israel is counting on its combined Arrow and Patriot missile defense system to destroy or deflect any attack on civilian population centers.

The security official's comments were unusual because Israeli military authorities have been reluctant to draw attention to anything that might upset the delicate Arab-European-American balance that allows the United States to operate in the region.

The official offered a "quite good" prognosis for U.S. ability to unseat Saddam's regime. "It should not take more than maybe a few weeks before this regime will collapse," he said, predicting "not very much casualties."

Israel supports the effort to topple Saddam, but expects to remain on the sidelines, even though the Home Front Command, a wing of Israel's military, is distributing gas masks to citizens and foreign workers, and offering instructions on how to seal special rooms against a poison gas attack.

In a public briefing for foreign reporters earlier this week, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a former intelligence chief who has been chosen by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to serve as an Israeli spokesman during the war, said Israel is "not expecting a series of missiles" and noted that Iraq is weaker than it was in 1991.

"We are expecting sole events—like one missile here, one missile there, one airplane here, one airplane there," he said.

On Friday, the senior security official said that if a chemical or biological attack struck Israel, the military would balance the desire to retaliate with an equal desire not to complicate the American-led campaign to unseat Saddam.

"Of course, we will have to find something creative enough in order to satisfy both sides," he said.

The official, however, said he is "very skeptical" that defeating Saddam would bring stability to the region. He cited differing interests among Iraqi Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, as well as economic instability and a huge refugee wave that could come with a bombing campaign that ravaged Iraq's infrastructure.

"Even if the offensive in Iraq is successful militarily," he said, the United States might emerge from the campaign "a little exhausted. ... Even an empire like the United States should have a break after such a situation."

Overall success, he said, will require a wider U.S. commitment: first, finding another strong, stable leadership for Iraq that avoids uncorking ethnic disputes; then dealing with other regimes that could exploit Iraqi instability. He cited Syria, saying Israel estimates that Damascus controls more weapons of mass destruction than Baghdad, and has more missiles.

In Iraq, he said, "We do not see the natural, potential leader that will emerge after the campaign."

Absent that strong leader, he said, there could be economic and refugee problems and splintering of the state that could spill over into the region. "We are not sure the Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world will accept calmly and peacefully their role in the American campaign."

In that case, circumstances could deteriorate and require the United States to maintain "dozens of thousands of troops" in Iraq for a year or more, facing "guerrilla warfare and demonstrations," economic problems and an Arab power vacuum.

Moreover, he predicted that a U.S.-style democracy could be at odds with the goal of stability because it could empower anti-American, anti-Israeli Shiites in Iraq, if not the region. "Democracy is a funny word in the language of the Middle East."

The official declined to give specifics, but said Israel's defense establishment has contributed behind the scenes to the U.S. effort in three ways:

_Intelligence sharing, including providing information on Iraqi military sites that the United States may not have but that Israel acquired because of its geographic position in the region.

_Strategic analysis, what the official called "sharing perspectives" on the potential consequences of war.

_Military tactics, including counter-terrorism techniques, which he obliquely described as "some very small, very specific, not very important military lessons that we have, military devices that we have under certain circumstances."

As an example, he described how Israel has become better at rapidly gathering and deploying intelligence to stop "in two minutes" a suicide bomber who already has strapped on a bomb belt and is on the road to his attack destination.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.