A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in Two Weeks Ending Jan. 18, 2007

At least 16 US F-16 fighter craft arrive in S. Turkish Incirlink for the first time in three years


12 January: According to local Cihan News Agency, the F-16s were accompanied by an early warning system AWACS airplane and tanker airplanes from an American base in Germany. An official at the US embassy in Ankara said the planes had arrived for joint exercises with the Turkish military.


Two US aircraft carrier groups plus a Patriot air defense missile battalion of 600 missiles planned for the Middle East – the Pentagon


12 January: The US military spokesman said the carrier USS John C. Stennis will join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group will be deployed in the Persian Gulf for a period of months. The second carrier will not just be showing force, but be actively involved in combat operations and providing air support across the region.” US-Iranian tensions are mounting over Washington’s charges of Iran’s disruptive interference in Iraq, which were spelled out by President George W. Bush Wednesday. US forces detained six Iranian nationals in two raids in Irbil, northern Iraq Thursday.


Washington again raises the military stakes against Iran, as US secretary of state Rice arrives in the Middle East Saturday


13 January: For the first time, the Pentagon released the figures of US and British casualties in Iraq from the extra-lethal explosive devices manufactured in Iran: 198 dead and more than 600 wounded. These devices are smuggled in through the southern marshes and along the Tigris River.

The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress Friday that Iranians are now on the US target list in Iraq. He spoke of an “aggressive ground campaign” against Iranian networks operating inside Iraq. The Pentagon has also referred to possible cross-border raids into Iran, but so far none has been approved. The stakes have been rising since Wednesday, Jan. 10, when the US president vowed to seek out and destroy Iranian and Syrian networks disrupting US operations in Iran and fomenting violence.

Attempts to disrupt these networks combine with the decision to send a second aircraft carrier, the USS John. C. Stennis, to the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran plus a Patriot air defense missile battalion to the Middle East and the deployment of a large number of warplanes in the Turkish base of Incirlik. A US military spokesman has said the two carrier strike groups will not just be showing force but actively involved in combat operations and providing air support across the region.

All these actions are raising the ante of the conference Condoleezza Rice will lead in mid-week in Kuwait of Arab foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan. She will try to build a pro-American alliance by selling the argument that an American failure in Iraq would pose an existential threat to all their nations. She launched her Middle East tour Saturday in Jerusalem and Ramallah on the assumption that some progress on the Israel-Palestinian front would bolster her case.


Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas postpones his appointments in Damascus after a severe scolding from US secretary Rice


14 January: Abu Mazen had planned those meetings in Damascus for Tuesday. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report that when they met in Ramallah Sunday, Jan 14, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice informed the Palestinian leader that Washington is determined to derail any collaboration deals he and his Fatah might conclude with Hamas’ leaders in the Gaza Strip or Damascus. The Bush administration likewise strongly opposes a non-political Palestinian government of technocrats or any administration based on Fatah-Hamas parity.

Rice and Abu Mazen were clearly at odds in their statements after their conversation. While The US secretary of state reiterated the deep American commitment to progress on the roadmap toward a two-state solution – without skipping any of its stages, Abbas flatly rejected interim arrangements or provisional borders (part of the road map) and demanded a diplomatic track that led directly to “a comprehensive, just and durable peace.”

The secretary plans to demand Israeli concessions to the Palestinians when she meets Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem Monday. Our sources report that Rice will want such concessions confined to the West Bank and exclude the Gaza Strip. First, she will ask him to transfer to the Palestinian leader $100 m of the revenues held back from the Palestinian Authority and ease Palestinian access and movement.


Rice and Olmert agree in three-hour conversation Monday to hold three-way talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas


15 January: Half the time they talked without aides about next steps on the Israel-Palestinian issue – the threesome will meet at a later stage – and Iran’s nuclear program. Rice has left for her next stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov confirms the sale of short-range anti-aircraft TOR-M1 missiles to Iran, which was first revealed by debkafile on Dec. 18, 2006


16 January: Ivanon stated that Moscow will consider further requests from Tehran for defensive weapons. The Russian minister added: “Iran is not under sanctions and if it wants to buy defensive … equipment for its armed forces then why not?”

He insisted that the UN sanctions restricting Iran’s trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology “do not apply to missiles.”

debkafile‘s Moscow sources reveal this is exactly the position President Vladimir Putin laid before Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert at their Kremlin talks on Oct. 18, 2006. They quote Putin as spurning Olmert’s request to withhold advanced weaponry from Tehran. He said: We will sell Iran and Syria too all the defensive arms they want to buy. Neither Israel nor the Americans can stop us. As long as we don’t give them offensive weapons, you have nothing to complain of.”

On his return home, the Israeli prime minister presented his talks with Putin as a big success and therefore neglected to make the Russian president’s position on arms sales to Iran and Syrian known. National military strategists were therefore caught unawares by the revelation of Moscow’s sale of the S-300PMU2 Favorit air defense system to Syria.

According to our Moscow sources, Putin and Ivanov are determined to equipTehran and Damascus with defensive hardware to deter the United States and Israel from attacking both countries by the threat of heavy casualties.

Last December, debkafile‘s military sources reported the conviction of some Iranian and Russian aid defense experts that the deployment of Tor-M1 missiles at Iran’s nuclear installations will make it almost impossible for the Americans or Israelis to knock out those facilities for any lengthy period. Therefore, they estimated that any US or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear sites must go forward in the next six months before the new Russian anti-air systems are in place.


Dan Halutz who resigned as chief of staff over the Lebanon war will have to hold the fort until the political battle over a successor is resolved


17 January: In his letter of resignation, the departing chief of staff said that with the completion of military probes into the outcome of the Lebanon war, he was holding himself accountable. This step intensified the widespread public demand for the prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Amir Peretz to follow his example.

Labor MP and former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon praised the Halutz resignation as an example to the heads of government and a key step towards opening up the IDF to the essential process of recovery, rehabilitation and adaptation to its contemporary and future missions. He said the Halutz appointment as chief of staff by the Sharon government in Jan. 2005 had been politically-tainted, a precedent which must not be repeated. (Halutz replaced Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon who was sacked for opposing the summer 2005 evacuation of Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip.)

Gen. Halutz announced he was quitting hours after a former chief of staff, Dan Shomron found in his high-level military probe into the mismanagement of the July-Aug 2006 Lebanon War that Halutz and the general command had no clear objective. Even when the prime minister finally ordered them to halt the 33-day rocket barrage against northern Israel, which claimed 43 civilian lives, the directive was not heeded.

Shomron also criticized as a serious blunder the decision by prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni to relegate to UNIFIL and the Lebanese army the task of preventing Hizballah’s rearmament. Since the war ended last August, he reported, Hizballah had brought its missile arsenal back to the pre-war level.


Nomination of new Israeli chief of staff is mired in political contest between prime minister Olmert and defense minister Peretz


18 January: Lt. Gen Dan Halutz’s surprise resignation as chief of staff Wednesday, Jan 17, has thrown the government in turmoil. By law, it is the prerogative of the defense minister to choose a chief of staff and present it to the full government for approval. However, prime minister Ehud Olmert, who has been trying to get rid of defense minister Amir Peretz, has set up his own side track, combining the nomination of the IDF chief with negotiations to replace Peretz as defense minister.

The strong favorite at the moment is former prime minister Ehud Barak, who last month challenged Peretz for the leadership of the Labor Party. The opposition leader, former Likud PM, Binyamin Netanyahu, is another option in the volatile standoff. But Olmert may have missed his chance; he can hardly fire the defense minister after losing the chief of staff. So Peretz, who has shown no sign of quitting anyway, is the winner in this round of the contest. At the same time, Peretz’s preferred candidate for chief of staff is the director general of the defense ministry, ex-General Gabby Ashkenazi. For that reason, his candidacy is likely to run into the prime minister’s veto.

The opposition, the media and most sections of Israeli opinion question the competence of both Olmert and Peretz to name the next chief of staff, when both are under critical scrutiny by a panel probing the faulty management of the Lebanon War. Its findings are due to be published within a few weeks.

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