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War in Iraq Israel Backers Hold Their Breath As U.S. Seeks Missile Launchers

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Advocates for Israel are hoping that the Jewish state will not be in danger in the hours or days until U.S. forces finish scouring Iraq’s Western desert in search of missile launchers that could strike Israel.

Unlike during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Israel bowed to fierce American pressure not to respond when hit by 39 Iraqi missiles, Israeli leaders this time have said they will retaliate for a major attack.

The United States is eager to keep Israel from getting involved in the war, fearing it would endanger the fragile coalition against Iraq. U.S. officials promised that one of the first orders of battle would be to search for missile launchers in Iraq’s vast desert.

Some, then, were surprised when the war began Wednesday night with an isolated missile attack in Baghdad that reportedly targeted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his close associates — followed by a prolonged lull.

“I would have preferred” that efforts against Scud missile launchers “be the first thing they did, but obviously they had other priorities,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

“Every minute” that the United States doesn’t take out Scud launchers, the threat to Israel remains, he said.

“The whole prevailing thought that Saddam Hussein would attack Israel is that he’s going to down anyway — and by attacking Israel as he goes down, he becomes a hero in the Arab world,” Neumann said.

Others cautioned that more efforts may be underway in the Western desert than are reported. While television stations prominently featured the attacks on Baghdad, there clearly isn’t the same type of media presence in the desert.

Israeli media reported late Thursday that a large U.S. force had begun operating in western Iraq to prevent missile attacks against Israel.

Little is known about preemptive actions that U.S. Special Forces reportedly have taken in the desert in recent weeks and months, but it is known that scouts have surveyed Iraq’s Western front for a long time.

Some have speculated that U.S. forces already have taken out the Scud launchers — or perhaps that they looked and found none.

“They’re finding no evidence of Scud launchers out there,” said Morris Amitay, a pro-Israel activist and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Israelis are very confident there’s nothing out there.”

A hopeful sign, analysts say, is the fact that Saddam retaliated for the initial strike by launching missiles into Kuwait, not Israel.

But Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, said Saddam has not yet reached the point at which he might use weapons of mass destruction, possibly against Israel.

“I believe that Saddam is not yet ready to make it public that he has the things he swears in front of the whole world he does not have,” said Lipkin-Shahak, a member of the Israel Policy Forum’s Israel Advisory Council. “It may be different when Saddam is really pushed to a corner and believes it’s his last few days.”

For now, Saddam will focus primarily on protecting the Iraqi capital, Lipkin-Shahak said.

“I don’t think that Israel is under such a big threat,” he said.

Nonetheless, Israel is taking precautions, notably with a two-tiered system of anti-missile missiles that can take out Iraqi Scuds before they hit.

The new Arrow system is designed to shoot down Scuds at high altitudes and long distances, while Patriot missiles are used to guard strategic locations and serve as a backup if the Arrow fails.

On Thursday, the Israeli missile defense system went on high alert Thursday following a false alarm of an Iraqi missile attack. The false alarm went off during a news briefing by the head of the Israeli army’s anti-aircraft forces at an Arrow anti-missile battery in southern Israel. Soldiers operating the system donned gas masks, but after a few minutes the alarm proved false.

Israelis brought gas masks to work and school on Thursday.

Despite the surprise opening of an attempted “decapitation strike,” Jewish and Israeli officials were confident Thursday that Israel would be protected.

“We have a high level of confidence that America is very serious about its commitment to us to eliminate the Scud threat before it emerges,” an Israeli official in Washington said.

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