JERUSALEM (Apr. 2)
Israel branded Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a war criminal Monday and said it was “high time” the civilized world banded together to thwart his “criminal designs.”
The statement, issued by Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Amihud, was Israel’s official response to Hussein’s threat earlier in the day that Iraq possesses advanced chemical weapons that could destroy “half of Israel.”
“I swear to God we will let our fire cat half of Israel if it tries to wage anything against Iraq,” Hussein was quoted as saying in a nationally broadcast speech in Baghdad.
Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the Iraqi leader “arrogant” and “boastful,” and said he was “actually challenging the entire world.”
“Israel is strong, and Iraq is not beyond its powerful strike capability,” said Rabin, one of the 11 Labor ministers who resigned from the Likud-led government on March 13.
The Foreign Ministry’s statement stressed that “the fact that Iraq boasts with impunity about its murderous chemical weapons and that it is proud of its capacity to commit crimes against humanity,” is a “reminder of the threat with which Israel is faced.”
‘INFLAMMATORY AND OUTRAGEOUS’
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler called Hussein’s remarks “irresponsible, inflammatory and outrageous.”
She added that “nobody should be trumpeting chemical weapons.”
The Israeli statement accused Iraq of “using universally banned chemical weapons against innocent civilians and its own citizens” in the recent past.
The reference apparently was to the use of poison gas by Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, including alleged use of the lethal weapons against its own Kurdish population.
“It is high time for the civilized world to act in unity and see to it that Saddam Hussein will not find it possible to pursue his irresponsible and criminal designs,” the Israeli statement concluded.
But Jerusalem also sought to calm tempers.
“Israel has no aggressive intentions against anyone,” said Avi Pazner, press spokesman for Yitzhak Shamir, the caretaker prime minister.
He added, however that Israel “has sufficiently proven in the past that it is able to defend itself and will not be blackmailed by threats like that.”
Rabin, speaking on Israel Radio, called Hussein’s threat to destroy half of Israel “nonsense.”
He admitted the Iraqis have the long-range missile capability, but Israel’s reaction would be “many times more severe,” he said.
Asked about the timing of the Baghdad statement, Rabin said he thought it was intended to signal Israel “that 1990 is not 1981.”
In 1981, Israeli long-range fighter-bombers destroyed a partly completed nuclear reactor near Baghdad, claiming it was about to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The Iraqis, engaged in war with Iran at the time, did not respond.
But now, Hussein seems to be saying, he is free to retaliate against an Israeli attempt to knock out his chemical weapons plants or to interfere with Iraq’s efforts to rebuild the reactor.
Accusations that Iraq is again developing a nuclear bomb surfaced last week in the United States and Britain. The two Western powers collaborated to thwart what they claimed was an attempt to smuggle devices that trigger nuclear bombs from the United States to Iraq.
(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)