No official word has issued from any world capital concerning the imminence of a US offensive against Baghdad. Yet DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts report that the region’s armies are all busy in one way or another getting ready for a surprise US strike on Baghdad and its regional backlash. Our sources this week followed the heightened movements of men, tanks, guns, missiles, warplanes and carriers:
For most of the outgoing month, Iraq has been massing troops in the west along the Jordanian and Syrian borders, for fear of a surprise US military assault on Baghdad by ground or airborne troops from bases in Jordan, Israel and the Sinai, or from US aircraft carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two mechanized divisions and the Republican Guard’s Babylon armored division are deployed at the al-Baghdadi base near the town of Arbuta. Additional anti-aircraft units have reinforced this facility. Planes carrying chemical weapons have been spotted recently at several Iraq airfields, mainly the al-Sharaa military airbase 270 miles (430 km) north of Baghdad and west of the River Tigris.
In the last two weeks, Israel has stepped up preparations for standing up to a nuclear, biological and chemical attack. The Israel Defense Forces high command has ordered new units to be set up with all speed for training in locating, identifying and neutralizing nuclear, biological and chemical substances. Thousands of officers and soldiers, including reservists, have been drawn from various branches of the military and attached to the new units. They are undergoing lightening two-week NBC courses, at the end of which they are assigned to permanent sectors.
One group has been based with commando forces as well as the armored, mechanized infantry, artillery and combat intelligence corps. A second group will be deployed at key points in Israeli cities, such as power stations and water pumping facilities, and distributed among street blocks.
Unit equipment and soldiers’ personal gear are stored close to these sectors of operation, readily available in an emergency. These trainees, officers and men, are told explicitly to prepare in the very short term for an Iraqi attack, that will include missile and bomber strikes using nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
TV and radio stations were ordered to set up alternative studios and broadcasting facilities capable of functioning under Iraqi missile attack.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say Israel’s high command has given the national home-front service until May 25 to complete the formation of the new units as well as their training and equipment. The home-front command has received the rating of a combat post. Only the northern command in charge of Israel’s volatile Syrian and Lebanese borders has been ranked higher.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources add that at the height of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank ten days ago, Israel secretly began deploying large armored contingents on its border with Egypt, in the wake of intelligence information on Sinai-related Egyptian military preparations.
Ten days ago, Egypt’s Sinai Command was ordered to go on operational footing in the Suez Canal cities of Ismailia and Suez. The Sinai Command goes on operational footing only when it prepares for war. The Second and Third Armies under this command have standing orders to meet an outbreak of full-scale hostilities by pushing into Sinai and taking up positions to defend the Suez Canal. The two armies have not as yet deviated from their regular routines; nor have they called up reserves.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that Israel quietly asked the United States to sound out Cairo on its military preparations and find out if there was any intention of moving units into the Sinai, where strict troop limitations have been in effect since Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Egypt replied that military preparations in the Middle East are advancing so rapidly that its high command decided to take minimal logistic steps to make sure it would not be caught off-guard.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Saudi Arabia has kept in place the troop concentrations massed two weeks ago along its border with Jordan – despite US President George W. Bush’s assurance to Saudi crown prince Abdullah in Crawford, Texas that no final date had been set for a US military offensive against Iraq. The Saudi high command is taking no chances. Like other military commands around the Middle East, it is not ruling out a surprise US attack being launched at any moment against Iraq. For his part, it appears that Abdullah wants to show Washington he was serious about his proposal to involve Saudi Arabia militarily in the West Bank. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, more than half of the kingdom’s combat units are now in a state of readiness on the Jordanian frontier.
They are: the 14th armored brigade and the 8th and 20th mechanized brigades.
Saudi Arabia’s paratroop brigade is on alert at the Tabuk base. The 12th armored brigade and 6th mechanized brigade have left Tabuk and moved northwest to a point across from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
Over the past week, Jordanian units continued moving east toward the Iraqi frontier. They positioned their 4th and 20th mechanized divisions across from Iraqi bases and the H-3 airfield. Elements of the divisions were deployed in the northeast, near the point where the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria converge.
Following the recent massive Saudi military deployments along the kingdom’s northern border with Jordan, the Jordanians moved their 3rd armored division south from the Iraqi frontier to the Saudi border.
The Syrian army has taken up defensive positions in four main areas: the Beqaa valley, Baalbek, the Beirut-Damascus highway and the Israeli-Syrian border in the northern Golan Heights, near Mount Hermon and Shebaa Farms.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report a full combat alert declared this week for Syria’s 1st armored regiment in the Damascus area and the 2nd regiment in western Syria and Lebanon.
The 10th mechanized division and elements of the 51st armored division, stationed until last winter in Beirut, have in the past few days relocated from western and central Lebanon to the Beqaa Valley on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. Some have taken up defensive positions along the Beirut-Damascus highway.
The 1st regiment commands the defenses of Damascus and the Syrian-Israeli border on the Golan Heights.
The 2nd regiment secures Syria’s eastern frontier and the Syrian expeditionary force in Lebanon
The 27th and 82nd armored brigades of the 3rd division, and the 87th armored brigade of the 11th division are on the ground in Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, a Hizballah political and logistic stronghold.
Syria’s elite 14th division, comprised of special forces, has moved east, fetching up at the meeting-point of the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli borders in the northern Golan Heights, north of Shebaa Farms.
Damascus ordered these military steps after asking Iran to send new shipments of Fajar-5 surface-to-surface missiles to Hizballah units in southern Lebanon. The missiles have a range of more than 50 km (30 miles) and can hit the Israeli port city of Haifa and its military, electronic and oil industries and essential utilities. Syria assured the Iranians, in response to a query, that Hizballah positions would be authorized to fire the new missiles as of the first week in May.
This news sent US secretary of state Colin Powell rushing over to Damascus in the middle of his Middle East mission to defuse the Israel-Palestinian crisis. He sternly warned Bashar Assad that Israel would lose no time in hitting vital Syrian military assets if the Fajar missiles took to the air. Assad gave no sign of his intentions.