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U.S. warned Israel of first strike against Saddam

TEL AVIV, Israel—Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon 90 minutes before American cruise missiles crashed into a building thought to be sheltering Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, to warn Sharon about the attack.

It was in the wee hours Thursday in Israel when Sharon spoke to Powell, an Israeli government official who had been briefed on the call said Friday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Powell told Sharon the United States "had specific intelligence information on Saddam Hussein. Therefore, they weren't starting the war but they were moving on it, and it could have repercussions."

Israel already had decided to put its citizens on high alert, instructing them hours before Powell's call to carry their gas masks with them. That alert was based on an earlier call from President Bush to Sharon that the war would start overnight Thursday—not overnight Wednesday, as it happened.

Washington has kept Israeli officials closely informed about plans for when war would begin.

The official gave these details of U.S-Israel contacts:

_Early Monday, Bush called Sharon to notify him that the war would begin Thursday night. Israeli officials had been told earlier that the so-called "shock and awe" campaign would include an early advance into western Iraq to secure spots Iraqis had used to lob Scud missile at Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Based on that call, Israeli officials instructed citizens to prepare, ratcheting the warning up late Wednesday, thinking hostilities were a day away.

_Sharon was at his farm in southern Israel when Powell called at about 3 a.m. Thursday and said that, based on new intelligence, an American military operation would begin in Baghdad in 90 minutes. It was 8 p.m. in Washington.

Government spokesmen said at the time that Sharon had gone to his farm to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim and to show Israelis they should continue life as usual, even with war looming two countries away.

In fact, Sharon also thought the U.S. attacks on Iraq were a night away.

Hebrew-language Israeli newspapers on Friday offered the first reports of the telephone call, along with quotes attributed to Powell. The daily Ma'ariv newspaper said Powell told Sharon the early American assault was "not the real thing yet," but that U.S. forces had a specific operation in mind.

The mass circulation tabloid Yediot Aharonot quoted Powell as saying: "Ariel, the president has asked me to update you on a change in timing of the beginning of the campaign in Iraq." Powell than explained that the CIA had information that Saddam and his close advisers were hiding in a specific building.

The newspaper reported that Sharon swiftly spoke to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and they added some unspecified "precautionary measures." They also changed some orders to the Israel Air Force, whose warplanes have visibly increased patrols over Jerusalem.

The Israeli official told Knight Ridder on Friday that Sharon was untroubled by the early start to the war, as Israel had had its air defenses on high alert for days and its citizens were prepared.

Moreover, Israeli intelligence analysis had concluded that Iraq wouldn't or couldn't hit Israel at the start of the U.S. war.

"Who, more than us, understands these things, that suddenly an opportunity comes up? It's a standard operating thing," the Israeli official said. Besides, he said, had American forces managed to succeed in bombing Saddam specifically, "We'd even take a missile for not letting us know for that reason."


(Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.)


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