Putin’s Moment of Truth

En route to his weekend meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, President George W. Bush told a Berlin news conference Thursday, May 23, that the Iraqi regime presents a danger to civilization.

“The Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein,” said the US president, “should be disposed of before he begins sharing weapons of mass destruction with groups like al Qaeda.”

Bu then, Bush went on to insist he had no current plan to attack Baghdad.

He also suggested Iraq possessed ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in Europe. Saddam was therefore able to retaliate for a US military offensive by striking European cities like London, Berlin and Paris, in addition to targeting Israel and US military targets in the Middle East, Gulf and Europe. It will all depend on which European countries decide to line up with the American military campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Bush’s comments on Iraq’s missile capabilities confirm DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that Iraq has assembled an arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles of various types, of which between 50 and 70 can reach Europe. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s information, intelligence estimates of a small Iraqi missile force are outdated.

Bush carefully sidestepped questions on a timetable for the US assault on Iraq. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report exclusively from Washington that, just before he left for Europe, the president ordered General Tommy Franks, supreme commander of the US war against terrorism, to transfer the day-to-day command of the Afghanistan campaign to staff officers and focus entirely on preparing the assault on Iraq.

One of the things Bush expects from his summit with Putin in St. Petersburg is an update on exactly where Putin and Russia stand on the strategic-personal alliance the two presidents forged immediately after the September 11 attacks, an understanding that translated into joint action in the Afghan War.

Beyond the agreements on nuclear arms limitation and Russia’s expanded role in NATO decision-making, Bush also needs an assurance of Russian intelligence cooperation in any military actions against Iraq – and, if necessary, against Iran, Syria and the Hizballah in Lebanon too. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, US objectives in Iraq go beyond toppling the Saddam; they go as far as ensuring that never again will a strong central government rise in Baghdad and assert control over all of Iraq. The US President is more determined than ever to stick to his original program – as first reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 54 on March 22 – of going on to chart new borders and spheres of influence in the Middle East after removing the Saddam regime.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, US military and political planners are going back to their first blueprint, the one calling for the partition of Iraq into three provinces with the Baghdad government administering loose federal control. This scenario calls for Shi’ite self-rule in the south that will lean on pro-American Gulf countries such as Kuwait; a Sunni province backed by Jordan’s military might and intelligence services in central Iraq; and a Kurdish province in the north retaining its present autonomous powers.

Iran looms large and threateningly over this plan. American strategists understand that their projected three-part Iraqi state will be fair game for an Iran bristling with nuclear weapons and sophisticated intercontinental missiles – unless Tehran can be prevented from procuring this arsenal.

Bush therefore hopes to persuade Putin to halt construction of the Iranian atomic reactor at Bushehr, now it its final stages, and bring home the hundreds of Russian scientists and engineers helping Iran develop the 1,800 km-2,000 km (1,100 mile -1,200 mile) range Shihab-4 missile.

He will present the Iranian peril as a cause of deep concern for stability in Central Asia, arguing that if Moscow helps Tehran acquire a nuclear arsenal and long-range missiles, Iran will be in a position to wipe out the US-Russian investment in Central Asia and the Caspian region. Their joint interests will be squeezed in a pincer movement from Iran in the east and China from the north.

All the US efforts since 1994 to dissuade the Kremlin from providing Iran with nuclear aid and high technology have been unavailing. Bush will now confront Putin with his moment of truth. His response will not be made known before the US president’s return to Washington next week.

Meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say the Iranians are girding for trouble. Ten days ago, they fortified the Bushehr complex’s defenses. US and Israeli satellite photographs show the deployment of additional batteries of surface-to-air missiles and five more missile boats, raising to 11 the number of missile boats moored there.

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