US Tenses for Saddam’s Next Move

debkafile‘s Washington sourcesreport that US Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to the Middle East at the end of next week only if President Bush insists, knowing his mission is foredoomed to end exactly like that of CIA Director George Tenet, whose hard-won ceasefire deal was a faint a memory after four days. The US Secretary is perfectly aware that, whatever Yasser Arafat may promise, he will not call off Palestinian violence. Arafat’s latest whim is a demand to implement last October’s Sharm Al-Sheikh understandings. He conveniently forgets he violated that deal, like every other accord he promised to uphold. All he remembers is that Israel is required to withdraw its forces within 48 hours.
There are few illusions in Washington therefore of yet another senior US official succeeding in yet another attempt to bring Arafat round to yet another truce.
But a new element entered the Middle East equation this week: Saddam Hussein dealt a new card. Seasoned Middle East observers warn that there is often a tie-in between Saddam’s words and Arafat’s deeds. This fresh turn of events will top the US-Israeli agenda in the coming days.
The new Baghdad ploy surfaced on Saturday, June 16, when Iraq’s UN ambassador Mohammed al-Douri informed American NBC television of a $10,000 reward promised by Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi air-defense crewman who shoots down one of the US and British warplanes patrolling Iraq’s no-fly zones. This was official confirmation of a report carried in DEBKA-Net-Weekly (our electronic newsletter) on May 11, 2001.
The Iraqis were taking a leaf out of Arafat’s book. Since he proudly tells world television viewers, including the Israeli public, that Palestinians will continue to kill Jews – Wednesday he announced that “soldiers and settlers” were in Palestinian sights – Iraqi officials see no reason to be reticent about threatening the lives of American flight crews.
In Washington, the Bush administration made no response to al-Douri’s threat, providing Ariel Sharon with his model for military restraint.
But then the mercury in the war thermometer went up. The next day, June 17, according to reports reaching Washington, Saddam Hussein burst out at an Iraqi cabinet meeting that Iraq was heading for a major confrontation with “the aggressors” and must prepare to fight a new “independence war”.
Monday June 18, Iraq raised the issue of an old Saudi pipeline.
Recently, Saudi Arabia seized a disused pipeline that was originally built with an Iraqi investment to move Iraqi oil from the Mosul and Kirkuk region through Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea outlet of Yanbu. King Fahd ordered it disconnected after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Three months ago, the oil kingdom signed gas field development contracts with US companies and began repairing the pipeline to transport the gas to the Red Sea outlet. Iraq responded by demanding compensation for the “hostile” act against Iraqi property and national interests.
On the same day, a Saudi intelligence report reaching Washington spoke of Iraqi military movements and rising war fever in Baghdad. US forces in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, were ordered to stand by for any contingency.
Tuesday, June 19, an ABC television newscast carried an assessment by senior officials in Washington that “Saddam Hussein’s saber rattling against the US” had reached fever pitch. “Saddam and his two sons and heirs, Qusay and Uday, have been talking and acting as though Baghdad was actually preparing for a new armed confrontation with the West.”
At 10 am Wednesday, June 20, US and British warplanes carried out their regular patrol of the northern no-fly zone of Iraq from the big Turkish base of Incirlik. Since Iraqi gunners began routinely firing on these craft, the patrols consist of 40 planes – US F-15 fighters armed with air-to-air missiles, backed up by F-16 fighters carrying anti-radar missiles EA6-B Prowler flights designed to jam enemy radar and bombers carrying laser-guided bombs.
This week, the US-UK patrol met fire from ground-air missiles and anti-air guns over Mosul. Such fire is usually scattered and wide of the mark because the Iraqis refrain from using their radar instruments, fearing their destruction by the patrol flights.
The coalition craft did not return the fire.
Just after mid-day on Wednesday, Baghdad charged that a US-British air strike over the Talafar district near Mosul in northern Iraq had killed 23 people and wounded 11. The Pentagon and the British Defense Ministry made haste to deny the accusation. But by then the Baghdad media were running footage of the dead and injured people, correspondents were shown fragments of American bombs and missiles and, within two hours, mass funerals were featured on Baghdad TV. Saddam had clearly prepared his media offensive with great thoroughness.
Later on Wednesday, Washington warned Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to put their air defenses on the ready. A major part of the telephone conversation President Bush held with Israeli prime minister concerned the possible threat from Baghdad.
The Americans believe it possible that the Iraqi dictator, seeing the Palestinian confrontation with Israel approaching a moment of decision, fabricated a regional crisis as the prologue for Iraqi military intervention in the conflict. His options range from sending military “volunteers” to fight alongside the Palestinians to launching missiles against Israel.
debkafile ‘s Washington sources believe that Wednesday’s incident was but an opening shot. It may have been timed as a response to the major US-Turkish-Israeli air force maneuver that began Sunday over South Turkey. But it may well be followed up with more direct action. The Americans are holding Sharon’s hands tight against launching a massive military assault against Palestinian terrorism for fear it will give Iraq its pretext for stepping in. That may be the real burden of Powell’s mission.

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