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Israel wants more security in western Iraq

JERUSALEM—Small squads of coalition commandos have secured strategic sites in western Iraq and now control traffic on the roads leading to the vast desert region, meaning Baghdad can no longer dispatch forces there, Israeli sources said Tuesday.

But the coalition has not made enough territorial gains to satisfy Israel that an Iraqi missile attack is impossible even now, nearly two weeks into the war.

"Basically what we know is they have good control of the road and the access to the area, and the air bases. But since it's such a huge area it cannot be controlled 100 percent. And we believe there might be launchers hidden there, and we cannot take off the alert," said a source with knowledge of Israel Defense Forces analysis.

As a result, Israeli students are still toting survival kits to and from school each day, a sign that Israeli intelligence has yet to rule out an Iraqi poison gas attack on the Jewish state if U.S.-led forces close in on Saddam.

"There's always the scenario that some launchers are hidden away somewhere in western Iraq, and they simply haven't found them," said another Israeli with knowledge of intelligence assessments.

Moreover, only about 2,500 coalition forces are operating inside the vast desert region, including U.S. and British special forces, with the lion's share of the work there being carried out by the Australian SAS, a commando unit.

In terms of scale, the western war front wedged between Baghdad and the Jordanian border covers a land mass three times the size of Israel. But it has been the most secretive sector so far in the 12-day war.

There are no reporters known to be accompanying coalition forces in the area, and Pentagon briefers have been mostly mum on operations in the region that served as Iraq's launch pad for 1991 Scud missile attacks on Israel.

In one rare sighting, an Australian peace activist was quoted in the Newcastle Herald Tuesday as saying she encountered Australian commandos this week while fleeing the war in Baghdad for Amman, Jordan.

Coalition operations are so secretive in western Iraq because "the forces are operating out of Jordan and possibly Saudi Arabia," Israel's daily Ha'aretz reported Tuesday.

In addition to the Australian commandos, Ha'aretz reported that coalition forces in the west include members of the U.S. Delta Force, unspecified elite British forces and "semi-military units from the CIA."

With Israel publicly proclaiming it is solidly on the sidelines of the Iraq war, the government and military here have been sending mixed, and at times contradictory, signals about the threat of Iraqi attack in what could be a protracted war.

On one hand, state-run media reported that the military de-mobilized some reservists and decreased some protective air patrols after coalition forces seized two Iraqi airfields in western Iraq, known as H-2 and H-3. On the other, civil defense orders so far require citizens to maintain their sealed rooms and carry gas masks, just in case.

But, aside from students, who are required to bring their masks to school, few Israelis are seen carrying their survival kits in the streets.

"The coalition is controlling certain points, especially air bases in western Iraq. And it is using it as a place for forces, and supplies. But they didn't invade western Iraq and control it; they are only operating there," said retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, a former head of strategic planning for Israel's military who is now a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

"So we cannot say with certainty that Iraqis cannot operate there. On the contrary we know that there are still Iraqi military units in western Iraq. There is no full coalition control of western Iraq."

Israeli intelligence hopes U.S. forces will interrogate captured Iraqi commanders to help locate any hidden long-range missiles and any remaining parts of its chemical and biological weapons arsenal.

But Israeli concerns about missile attacks may never end, even if Saddam is killed or captured. Ha'aretz military analyst Amir Oren said some Israeli leaders worry that a long-range Iraqi missile could slip through.

"It's like the last Japanese soldier out of the jungle," he said, saying commanders cannot rule out a rogue mission even after Saddam. "Maybe somebody is still there not knowing that the emperor has surrendered, and will pull the trigger."


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