A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

4 September: Iran has drawn up an elaborate war plan of its own to counter the approaching US campaign against Iraq. Syria, Lebanon, the Hizballah and the Palestinians have been enlisted to provoke a massive confrontation with Israel that will serve as a second front and hamstring the US offensive. This is revealed exclusively by DEBKAfile‘s Iranian and Middle East sources, in the wake of a secret visit that Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, Mohammad Sadr, paid to Syria and Lebanon this week.

The Iranian visitor found the door wide open.

Syria’s Bashar Assad shares Tehran’s conviction that the installment of a pro-American regime in Baghdad is extremely dangerous, a direct threat to the Ayatollahs in Tehran, the Baath regime in Damascus, the freedom of operation of the Syria-based Palestinian terror groups and the very existence of the Lebanese Hizballah, Tehran’s primary arm for overseas operations and intelligence.

DEBKAfile‘s military and intelligence sources report that the Iranian envoy began the week in Damascus in conferences with President Assad, the Syrian defense minister and army corps commanders including military intelligence and air force. He also met the heads of the Palestinian terrorist groups operating out of Damascus. Tuesday, September 3, Sadr arrived in Lebanon for a marathon round of talks with Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and two senior lieutenants, Hashem Saffi-e-din and Naim Kassem.

Upon Sadr’s request and with Assad’s permission, a delegation of Palestinian leaders and operations officers based in Damascus was secretly invited to Beirut Tuesday to discuss Palestinian integration in the war plan formulated in Tehran with Qadr Nureddin, the Hizballah’s south Lebanon commander. In particular, they talked about roping in the inmates of the large Palestinian refugee camp of Ein Hilwa – both for military operations against Israel and for a cycle of terrorist strikes against American targets around the Middle East.

According to our sources, the Hizballah greeted their new directives from Tehran with enthusiasm and are preparing very shortly to launch a fresh wave of anti-Israel military operations to begin in the region of Ajar, a border village straddling the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Lebanese terrorist group will claim it is thwarting Israeli moves to interfere with Lebanon’s exploitation project for the Wazzani River sources. From this drummed up pretext, the Lebanese Shiite group will branch the action out into a massive assault.

8 September: The importance of the massive US-UK air raid over Western Iraq Friday night, September 6, cannot be exaggerated. Although the Bush administration is bidding hard for broad international support for the US offensive against Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that, since last month, a combined American-British air blitz has been proceeding to systematically knock out the first line of Iraq’s air force and air defenses.

The diplomatic flurry effectively post-dates the start of the US offensive against Iraq, which took place three months ago – not with a bang but by cautious, prefatory steps. Unlike the softening-up air blitz against Afghanistan’s Taliban and al Qaeda last year, US forces have been quietly filtering into Iraq (as DEBKAfile informed its readers). To date, American and allied Turkish special forces have gained control of some 15 percent of Iraqi soil – mostly in the north. They are poised at a point 10-15 miles from Iraq’s two northern oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, together with pro-American Kurdish and Turkman paramilitary groups, with no Iraqi force in the way of their advance, if ordered to occupy the two towns.

The massive US-UK air raid last Friday, September 6, by 100 fighter-bombers, reconnaissance and air tanker craft against the Iraqi air base cluster known as H-3 and the al Baghdadi air installation was Strike Number Two against the first line of Iraqi air and air defense command structures, the tactical prelude to any US offensive. It was also the first blow to systems for delivering Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Strike Number One was carried out on August 5, when American and British bombers and fighter craft demolished the Iraqi air command and control center at al-Nukhaib, in the desert between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, 260 miles southwest of Baghdad. This strike disposed of Iraq’s southern air defense line and left central Iraq including Baghdad vulnerable to US air, missile and ground attack from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

Strike Number two last week completed the destruction of Iraq’s air defenses in the west, leaving the Saddam regime exposed to attack from the south, the southeast, the west and the north, as well as a US troop presence actually inside northern Iraq.

DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that the air strike against H-3 and al Baghdadi destroyed some of Saddam’s ground-to-ground missiles, reducing the missile threat to Israel, Jordan and US East Mediterranean forces, though not eliminating it. Also destroyed were some of the Czech-manufactured LA-29 trainer planes sighted at al Baghdad in recent months, with aerosols fitted to their wings that are capable of spraying poison substances on the ground like anthrax. Some of the LA-29 have been adapted for kamikaze missions.

D. No less important politically, DEBKAfile‘s military sources stress, is that some of the US assault craft took off from and returned to the Saudi Prince Sultan air base, 35 miles northeast of Riyadh, as well as from Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

9 September: Ariel Sharon’s dozen years in the political wilderness – plus the bitter sniping suffered by his ten predecessors as Israeli prime minister – taught him some basic math: The best way to downsize your parliamentary opposition is to upsize your coalition government. Straight after his landslide election victory in February 2001, Sharon rolled up his sleeves and constructed a bumper coalition government, declaring the country needed a national unity administration to take on the spiraling Palestinian terror. The result: 25 more or less biddable ministers, a bevy of deputy ministers, depleted opposition benches and a frustrated country with little voice in policy-making.

Sharon, who at 74 has evolved from bellicose general to paternalistic politico, has not changed fundamentally from his early days in politics. In 1973, as a novice, he helped form the merger called Likud that brought Menahem Begin to power four years later. To this day, he retains his penchant for large political blocs, together with his predilection for close collaboration with Washington. In 1981, as Begin’s defense minister, he concluded Israel’s first strategic cooperation agreement with the United States.

But in 1982 he fell flat on his face, bearing the scars of that bungle to the present day.

Carried away by a brilliant victory over the Palestinian legions in Lebanon, he disregarded the US president of the day, Ronald Reagan, and marched the Israeli army for the first time into the heart of an Arab capital, Beirut. For this misjudgment, Sharon was forced out of the defense ministry and hurled off the political stage.

Now, having been recalled to office by a despairing and fearful electorate, prime minister Sharon is careful never to budge an inch away from the dotted line laid down by President George W. Bush with regard to the Palestinian conflict and national foreign and defense policy at large. From Sharon’s perspective, his reward of all-out White House backing benefits the country in three ways:

1. He has been allowed to outplay Yasser Arafat, whom he considers a threat to Israel’s survival, at the diplomatic game, isolating and downgrading him as Palestinian national leader, while also effectively voiding the Oslo peace accords the rival Labor signed with Arafat when its leaders were in office in 1993.

While criticized in different quarters variously for failing to liquidate, expel, prosecute and negotiate with the Palestinian leader, Sharon believes that Arafat’s removal from the Middle East and international scene is but a step away, part of Washington’s new post-Saddam order.

The US president has come round to accepting the prospect of a shrunken Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip enclave, with a nominal Palestinian presence on the West Bank subject to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

2. Sharon expects great strategic advantages from America’s coming campaign against Iraq. He looks forward to Israel’s Arab neighbors being reduced and stripped of their weapons of mass destruction – not just Iraq and Syria, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia – and the rise of friendly autonomous or semi-autonomous national entities, such as Iraq’s Kurds and Turkomen – and even Qatar and Kuwait, who will venture to come out from the Saudi and Iraqi shadows.

This is the ace Sharon keeps up his sleeve and he does not propose to share it with anyone.

3. With so much going for him, Sharon believes he deserves to scoop the next election at the end of 2003 and enjoy his re-election as prime minister in the new Middle East.

However, more than one part of the electorate is far from enchanted with his solo performance. They feel that the nation, government ministers, court judges, administrators, businessmen, bankers, academics and even the media are being treated by their prime minister as so many troops to be deployed in his tough but very personal war. As commander in chief, he calls for unquestioning self-sacrifice, forbearance and a brave face on the hardships “we are all experiencing”. Those hardships include deathly spasms of terrorism, a sinking standard of living, soaring unemployment, inaction against spreading corruption in the body politic and the virtual suspension of inter-political activity.

There is no one in Israeli politics to day willing and able to challenge Sharon to a serious national debate on whether America’s long-term strategic goals for the Middle East are automatically apposite for Israel. Does it suit Israel’s long-term interests, for instance, to instate Jordanian rule in the West Bank and face Amman’s inevitable demand to extend its jurisdiction to Temple Mount and parts of historic Jerusalem?

This dearth of challengers applies also to the list of the prime minister’s most significant rivals:

11 September: The members of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly ought to have remembered when they set about forcing a showdown with Yasser Arafat that he relishes the challenge of turning setbacks into victories. Just before the hitherto tame lawmakers forced a vote of no confidence in his 21-man cabinet Wednesday, September 11, he instructed the ministers to resign, thereby sidestepping the vote and defeating its purpose. The largely corrupt and inefficient cabinet stays on as a caretaker until a general election, exactly as he wanted. In another maneuver to blunt the opposition, Arafat fixed January 20 as election day. He has no more intention of letting a free election go forward than he has of appointing a new government in two weeks, which he also pledged.

The session therefore ended with Arafat and his chosen administration safe at the helm, having defeated a concerted attempt to oust them both. He will not be satisfied with winning this round; at the right moment, he will seek to punish the disobedient legislature by dissolving it and replacing the Palestinian Authority with the terrorist coalition that put him in power, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO.

But for once, his opponents feel strong enough to fight back. Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi pointed out that the fact that 51of the 85 members present demanded reforms in the Palestinian ruling body was an earthquake. Since President Bush’s landmark speech in June and Israel’s unfolding military operations from the spring, the Palestinians are being forced into the profound realization that they have lost out in their confrontation with Israel.

The final word in the standoff will depend largely on the progress of the US campaign against Baghdad. But Arafat shows no sign of throwing in the sponge. He exploited the legislative assembly forum and his keynote address to get a number of messages across, employing his usual stratagem of double meaning to signal the Palestinians, Nasrallah and the Arab world not to heed his honeyed words of peace – they were for foreign consumption – but his real message: He has not budged by a hair’s breadth from his goal of wiping out the state of Israel and gaining the entire land for the Palestinian people by the following measures already in hand.

1. The reconstitution of the damaged terror cells of Arafat’s own al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Force 17 and the Fatah, retraining them to take on full-scale Hizballah-style guerrilla warfare against the pervasive Israel troop control of Palestinian towns and their environs.

2. Upon a signal from Baghdad, Arafat will order the hidden Palestinian arms stores opened to let loose with missiles, light artillery, mortars, anti-tank and anti-air weapons, mines and bombs against the IDF, West Bank and Gaza Strip Israeli communities and key road junctions inside Israel.

3. In the last six months, the Hizballah and Iraqi military intelligence have sneaked explosives experts into the West Bank, some of them belonging to al Qaeda, and the makings of booby-trapped cars and bomb belts loaded with chemical substances. There have also been reports, some coming from American and Jordanian sources, of Iraqi agents smuggling into the territory materials for biological warfare – most likely smallpox virus and anthrax. Some sources also speak of radioactive materials and nerve gas.

For this type of warfare, Saddam has no need of missiles, air fighters or kamikaze pilots – only Yasser Arafat. Thus empowered, the Palestinian leader is convinced he will prevail in any power play his rivals and opponents launch against him.

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