A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

21 September: DEBKAfile‘s military sources point to the danger of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein attempting to turn the tables on the Americans by adopting the Bush administration’s newly- enunciated first-strike strategy.

An Iraqi pre-emptive could take three forms:

1. Nuclear, biological or chemical terror strike in a major American city or closer to home against Israel.

2. Military or terrorist action against one of the Persian Gulf nations that have made bases available to the United States, with Kuwait, Qatar and Oman first in line.

3. A large-scale missile assault on Israel.

The latest official pronouncements have played down any such threat to Israel.

US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday, September 19, that he trusted Israel would not react if struck by Iraqi missiles, while the Israel chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said last week that he is less worried about the Iraqi threat than he is by Palestinian terror. Nonetheless, neither official is oblivious to the possibility of an Iraqi first strike action and both the United States and Israel have made appropriate preparations. DEBKAfile reports as a certainty that Israel is determined to retaliate with all its might.

The threat of an Iraqi military strike increases the closer the Americans come to launch-date for their overt war against Baghdad. Washington admitted Saturday, September 21, that a detailed Pentagon plan containing the military options for deposing Saddam had been delivered to the White House in early September.

With telling timing, the Bush administration unveiled Friday, September 20, its national security strategy, a document that emphasized military pre-emption as the prime means for maintaining America’s political and military superiority against the newly-emerging threats.

“As a matter of common sense and self-defense”, says the paper, “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed”. It is therefore willing to launch pre-emptive military strikes against perceived dangers posed by tyrant state and terrorist networks before they reach American shores. Terrorists and rogue states were identified as the common enemy of the world’s great powers. “The greatest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology.”

The paper addresses the transformation of national security institutions, stressing the need to improve intelligence.

21 September: Israel’s military’s Operation Absolute, which has flattened building after building in Yasser Arafat’s government compound in Ramallah, is aimed at more than winkling out the 20 hardcore terrorist chiefs he harbors, or even retribution for the fresh wave of suicide terror he unleashed against Israel this week at the cost of nine Israeli lives. This operation was planned jointly in Washington and Jerusalem as a strategic step in the military and intelligence preparations that are bringing open war on Iraq very close.

The factor most troubling to US war leaders and the Israeli government is the information that Saddam has managed to smuggle a set of chemical and biological weapons to Arafat’s operatives, especially the ones commanded by General Security chief Tawfiq Tirawi, who doubles as al Aqsa commander. It is also feared that Iraq has been allowed to plant its undercover agents, armed with weapons of mass destruction, including even radiological devices, among Arafat’s terror cells.

These discoveries and suspicions prompted Israel’s all-out operation to cut off Arafat’s links with the outside world and its efforts to lay hands on Tirawi and at least 10 other of Arafat’s top guns who shelter in his quarters. These men are believed to be in possession of the secret locations of the Palestinian terrorist rings harboring Iraqi agents and their weapons of mass destruction.

Smashing this Palestinian-Iraqi connection and its hub in Ramallah is regarded by the Americans and Israelis as the key to preventing Saddam mounting an unconventional warfare attack from Arafat’s terror base – and not only against Israel.

Rooting out this hazard from its Ramallah source is the immediate objective of IDF Operation Absolute. But not the only one. DEBKAfile‘s analysts report three further goals:

A. Further narrowing down Arafat’s options and pointing him to his last remaining outlets. The systematic demolition of his compound in Ramallah leaves him surrounded with rubble, stripped of the trappings of government, destroyed its institutions, cut off his communications and unable to care for his most basic needs. His only resort is self-exile, either to the Gaza Strip, whence Israel has begun deporting terrorists, or an Arab country still willing to accept him – Yemen or Sudan.

B. Applying to Israel – even through such intermediaries as the Europeans or the Egyptians – for safe passage to the Gaza Strip would be tantamount to abdicating his rule over the West Bank. His favorite taunt for enemies would rebound against him: “If they don’t like what I’m doing, let them drink the waters of Gaza!”

C. Arafat’s disappearance from the West Bank would facilitate the establishment of Jordanian rule in line with the Bush master plan for remolding Middle East boundaries while fighting Saddam in Baghdad.

23 September:  The weathervane of US-Israel relations has begun to hover between fair and cloudy as the Bush administration’s assault on Iraq approaches. DEBKAfile‘s Washington and Jerusalem sources say the trouble is not related to Israel’s isolation of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah – that episode is closely coordinated with the White House – but to developing dissonances over the Iraq campaign.

In one of the first surface indicators of this unease, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, in one of his pre-New Year interviews earlier this month, suddenly came out with a revelation – not about Iraq or even Iran, but about Egypt’s previously unheard of nuclear program. He informed an unsuspecting American and Israeli public that a Libyan program was well advanced to build the first Arab-Muslim nuclear bomb as a joint Egyptian, Iraqi enterprise funded by Saudi Arabia.

Sharon’s revelation was not repeated. According to DEBKAfile‘s Washington sources, the Bush team jumped on him for stirring up embarrassing mud when Washington needed help from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fight Saddam Hussein. The timing was unfortunate. In early August, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been finally brought round to making bases available for the campaign.

Slapped down on the Arab nuclear issue, Sharon came up with a new one: He defined as a casus belli Lebanon’s project to tap the Hatsbani River by pumping water from its main tributary the Wazzani and diverting 15 percent of Israel’s water supply. The Hatsbani is fed additionally by subterranean springs near Ajar, the border village split between Israel and Lebanon. And a further complication: the Hizballah has posted armed guards at the Lebanese project on top of the thousands of missiles the Lebanese Shiite terrorists have positioned along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier – all pointed at northern Israel.

Washington, fearing an untimely conflagration, again asked Sharon to hold his horses, while a panel of American water experts hurried over to review the rights and wrongs of the situation and report to the US administration.

But then the cat was let out of the bag. Vice president Richard Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed the wish for Israeli not to get involved in the Iraq war, even if it is attacked.

Our analysts translate this as a message from Washington to Riyadh and Cairo in respect of Israel’s plan to crush Arafat’s regime in Ramallah with Washington’s assent. The message ran like this: We are holding Israel in check on the Libyan-Egyptian-Saudi nuclear bomb and the Wazzani water dispute; it is up to you to hold quiet for the Israeli assault on Arafat’s power base.

If Washington can this time too persuade Israel to sit on its hands in the face of an Iraqi attack, its deterrent and strike capabilities will be seriously impaired – as they were in 1991.The Jewish state will come out of the Iraqi conflict beaten and debilitated, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia have every chance of escaping Saddam Hussein’s ire and emerging stronger.

The small price for this reward will be to abandon Arafat to his fate.

American-Israeli sparring over Iraq has only just begun. Our Washington sources believe that the Bush administration will push hard to prevent Israeli from reacting militarily to an Iraqi strike – even if it is a terrorist attack. At the same time, Sharon will be given free rein to grab the top terror team under Arafat’s protection in Ramallah

DEBKAfile‘s Washington sources discern in these moves the beginning of the blame game, one that is destined to be played out should the US offensive against Baghdad tip the Middle East into overall conflict or run into unforeseen setbacks. The finger will then swivel round to point at Sharon instead of Washington or any Arab government.

24 September:  DEBKAfile‘s readers were not taken aback by the Israeli Shin Beit’s (Security Service) disclosure on September 23 that it had custody of a three-man Palestinian cell from Ramallah who trained in Iraq with Iraqi instructors in the execution of strikes against Israeli targets – in the company of al Qaeda terrorists.

Their admissions – which link Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in a collaborative relationship for the pursuit of terror – were included in a sensitive file carried to Washington this week by a team of Israeli officers.

DEBKAfile pointed attention to this association right after the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya on March 27, 2002. Three months earlier, in January 2002, we highlighted secret rendezvous taking place regularly in Amman between two childhood friends: Col. Tawfiq Tirawi, chief of West Bank General Intelligence and one of Arafat’s most trusted aides, and another Palestinian terror executive, Mohammad Abbas, known as Abu al-Abbas, head of the Baghdad-based Arab Liberation Front. Abu al-Abbas is better known for hijacking the Achille Lauro pleasure craft in 985 in an operation ordered by Arafat and throwing the American Jewish Leon Klinghoffer overboard in his wheelchair.

According to DEBKAfile‘s military and counter-terror sources, the Israeli officers brought to Washington two further pieces of information:

1. The interrogations of Palestinian and Iraqi terrorists and agents picked up in recent weeks in the West Bank, at the Jordan Bridges crossings from Jordan and in Jordan itself, yielded the discovery that Yasser Arafat’s hand was behind the assassination in Baghdad on August 16 of the terror master Abu Nidal, his notorious former partner turned rival, with four of his aides. Indeed, Tirawi and Abu al-Abbas were entrusted with setting up the murder. Arafat asked Saddam Hussein to get rid of Abu Nidal, claiming he was on the point of passing to American parties in the Persian Gulf evidence of the three-way partnership-for-terror forged by Arafat, Saddam and bin Laden. Saddam gave his assent at the beginning of August. The plan of operation entailed Abu Nidal’s regular contacts in Iraqi intelligence calling on him and, when he opened the door unsuspectingly, standing aside for the Palestinians to burst in and do the deed.

2. The second piece of information relayed to Washington exposes another hidden facet of the working relationship binding Arafat and his PLO with Saddam and al Qaida. That facet surfaced after Italy seized a ship on August 5, carrying a suspected al Qaeda cell of 15 Pakistanis. The ship’s smudged name appeared to be “Sara”. The Pakistanis were detained in Sicily after US naval intelligence deciphered coded messages and gathered evidence on some of the men. One coded note used the expression “united in matrimony”, which was similar to a reference intercepted during the first attack on New York’s Twin Towers in 1993.

DEBKAfile‘s counter-terror sources reveal exclusively one of the most telling discoveries of the Italian investigation: The “Sara” was owned by the same shipper as the Karine-A, the freighter captured by Israel last January with 50 tonnes of arms bound for the Palestinian Authority. Both vessels were also purchased by the same Palestinian-Iraqi company; the Palestinians negotiated the purchase with money put up by Iraq. Both ships flew the Tongan flag of convenience.

Whereas the Karine-A carried a cargo of contraband weapons provided by Iran, the Sara carried a suspected al Qaeda terrorist cell.

Arafat may protest he is innocent of terrorist activities and make a show of demanding a halt to terror. However, ample evidence continues to pile up demonstrating his hand in violence not only against Israel, but also in al Qaeda’s global terror campaign and Iraq’s machinations against the United States.

26 September: The construction of a new ring road around Damascus was the pretext for an outbreak of popular anti-government fury in the Syrian capital this week. Until now, stringent measures by the Syrian authorities have kept any hint of the unrest from leaking out.

DEBKAfiles Middle East sources have discovered that, last week, when the highway’s road-works began edging into the southeast Damascus neighborhood of Kabas, angry residents tried to block the incursion bodily. When this was unavailing, they began demonstrating. Last Saturday and Sunday, September 21-22, the demonstrations escalated to violent anti-government riots that raged for two days and were marked by violent slogans against the Assad regime. Sympathizers streamed in from other parts of Damascus to join the protesters.

After 48 hours in which the police failed to quell the unrest, army troops were called in. The next day, Monday, September 23rd, President Bashar Assad sent bulldozers escorted by troops into the defiant Kabas neighborhood with orders to continue building the road. The bulldozers also knocked down several houses.

The series of clashes ended with an unknown number of arrests and casualties. Some reporters who covered the outbreak were arrested and every scrap of reporting – print, photo and footage – was confiscated. Our sources add that the total blackout clamped down on the episode is part of the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of unrest – sparked as much by popular disaffection and economic suffering as by a local incident – to other parts of the capital.

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