The Israel Question Saddam May Try to Provoke Israel, Even into Using Nuclear Weapons
By Oliver Libaw
— Perhaps the scariest question of many surrounding the looming war
with Iraq involves Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and Israeli
"I think that it is improbable. But it is a heck of a lot less improbable than it normally is," said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org.
Many experts expect Saddam Hussein will try to bring Israel into the war in an attempt to unite the Arab world against the United States and Israel, and force horrified world leaders to push for an immediate cease-fire. It is similar to the strategy Saddam employed during the 1991 war, when 39 Iraq Scud missiles hit Israel.
Iraq is believed to have far fewer operational missiles than it did in 1991, but Saddam may be more likely to use whatever he has — including chemical and biological weapons — in an all-out bid for survival or revenge.
Such an attack would be very unlikely to succeed, experts believe. Iraq's arsenal is severely depleted and the Scud is considered an unreliable weapon with minimal ability to disperse chemical or biological agents. U.S. forces are also making it a priority to destroy Iraqi missiles on the ground, and Israel has two recently upgraded missile defense systems.
But the specter of a successful Iraqi strike is harrowing, both for the casualties on the ground and the repercussions of an Israeli retaliation.
‘Nightmare’ Scenarios Are Terrifying…
Experts such as Pike believe Saddam sees attacking Israel as key to his survival.
"Saddam would like to provoke the Israelis into nuking Baghdad," said Pike.
"If the Israelis nuked Baghdad a few hours after the war starts, that changes everything," he said. Hussein believes it would put enormous pressure on American and Israeli forces to stop the war.
Other analysts, such as Judith Kipper, an ABCNEWS consultant who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubt that Saddam wants to risk an Israeli attack, preferring instead to take his chances against U.S. forces.
If Iraq decides to attack Israel, experts believe it will have few options. Israeli intelligence officials estimate Saddam has fewer than 12 Scud missiles. Other estimates range from zero to a few dozen.
"It hasn't got many," said Toby Dodge. "I'd be amazed if they'd hit, even if they had free range in the west [of Iraq]."
American military planners are taking extensive measures to make sure Saddam does not have free range to use whatever missiles he has.
Coalition "Scud hunters," seeking to destroy missile launchers around Iraq, were generally unsuccessful in the first Gulf War, but analysts are confident U.S. efforts this time will be much more effective.
U.S. forces are already in western Iraq identifying targets, and quickly destroying any Iraqi missiles is a top priority for the Pentagon.
The United States has also sent advanced Patriot anti-missile batteries to Israel. The original Patriots were widely considered ineffective after the 1991 war, but officials believe the upgraded system is significantly improved.
Germany and the Netherlands have also loaned the Israelis Patriots.
Israel has also deployed its own Arrow anti-missile system, which intercepts targets at a higher altitude than the Patriot. Experts hail the Arrow's advanced design, but like the upgraded Patriot, it has never faced real battlefield conditions.
Israeli officials say the Arrow, coupled with data from U.S. spy satellites that can detect missiles warming up before launch, will be much more reliable than the Patriot.
Even if a missile with a chemical or biological agent penetrates Israel, it might not cause extensive damage or deaths.
Dodge stresses that Scud missiles are poor at dispersing such agents.
"Most of the nasty stuff inside would be incinerated," he said.
Pressure to Retaliate; Pressure to Stay Out
In 1991, Israel came close to retaliating against Iraq, despite intense U.S. pressure to remain on the sidelines. Many experts believe this time Israel would respond to an attack of that magnitude.
Once again, U.S. officials are pressuring Israel not to retaliate against any Iraqi attacks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he understands U.S. concerns about Israeli involvement.
"We are not involved in the war. And we understand the sensitivity of the situation in the Middle East," Sharon said in January.
But he has also told U.S. officials Israel would strike back against a successful attack by Iraq.
"If Israel is hit in any way, they'll hit back very, very heavily," predicted Dodge. Israeli leaders are determined not to show weakness in the face of an attack, he says.
Other experts suggest there will be little for Israel to do, even if it wants to respond to an Iraqi assault.
"If Iraq is already subject to consistent and I would say sustained U.S. bombardment, what is it, exactly, that Israel can do that would be impressive?" asked Shai Feldman, of Tel Aviv University.
The country's leaders have so far remained silent on how they would respond to various scenarios of Iraqi aggression.
"Israel says if attacked we reserve the right to defend ourselves. We don't specifically describe what we will do or what we won't do," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy.
"We hope that we won't have to use those options."
Worrying About ‘Mega Terror’ Attacks
Experts fear there are other ways Saddam can strike at Israel if he chooses. He may have trainer aircraft he could use as drones to fly chemical or biological weapons to targets in the country, though many doubt Iraq could launch and guide the planes successfully.
Saddam has been offering payments to families of Palestinian suicide bombers and officials believe he has broad influence over some terror networks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"He could possibly aspire to terrorist attacks and possibly a mega terrorist attack," said Regev.
The Hamas terrorist group has openly called for Muslims around the world to attack Western targets in the event of war.
Palestinian terrorists may be unwilling to mount a large-scale terrorist attack inside Israel, out of fear of heavy reprisals by Israeli forces.
Israel is also concerned that members of Hezbollah could mount rocket attacks at targets along Israel's northern border.
The military wing of Hezbollah, the Islamic group based in Lebanon and armed by Syria and Iran, could draw Israel into a conflict during a war by targeting cities with missiles.
Hezbollah, which was responsible for the deaths of 241 U.S. Marines in a 1983 bombing in Lebanon, may also be too worried about retaliation to provoke Israel and the United States.
In a recent news conference, Sharon warned: "They can be quiet. And if they will be quiet, nothing will happen to them."
Some observers also fear that Israel could use the war against Iraq as a pretext for a massive crackdown on Palestinians.
A Psychological Toll
"There is certainly a fear within Israel this time that Iraq could have some type of sleeper cell," said Max Abrams, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In the first Gulf War, Iraqi Scuds caused extensive damage and killed two Israelis. The attacks also took a tremendous psychological toll on Israel, with gas mask drills and evacuation rehearsals becoming grim routines for Israeli civilians.
Lea Ben-Haviv and her family escaped with only minor injuries when a Scud missile hit their home in Tel Aviv in 1991, but the terror of the attack is still fresh in her mind.
She remembers her mother Devorah telling her, "That's the end, Lea. Now we are going to die."
Despite the slim chances of a successful Iraqi attack, Israeli officials are taking extensive precautions.
Forty-thousand soldiers and emergency workers are getting smallpox vaccinations. Health officials say they will immunize all 6 million Israelis — and give the vaccine to Palestinian health services — if there is even one case of the disease anywhere in the world.
"We are geared to the logistics of actually vaccinating the whole population, so this is no real issue," promised Dr. Boaz Lev, director general, Israeli Health Ministry.
Every citizen is issued a gas mask, and officials are providing special cots for infants and children's suits designed to ward off chemical and biological weapons.
"I think it is quite possible that Iraq will try to bring Israel
into the conflict. The question is whether it has the capability,"
ABCNEWS' John Yang in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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