Response considered in case Iraq hits Israel

White House reassures Sharon on D.C. visit amid region's tensions

October 17, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United States assured Israel yesterday that it would make "a maximum effort to avoid the need" for Israel to retaliate if Iraq attacked the Jewish state during a U.S. war against Saddam Hussein, Israeli officials said.

On a day that marked a symbolic step toward possible war against Hussein's regime, President Bush alluded to the possibility that if war broke out, Iraq might attack other nations in the region, including Israel - perhaps with chemical or biological weapons.

"If we go into battle, as a last resort, we will confront an enemy capable of irrational miscalculations, capable of terrible deeds," Bush said during a White House ceremony at which he signed a congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war against Iraq if he deems it necessary.

Asked after a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon how Israel should respond if an Iraqi missile hit Tel Aviv, as happened numerous times during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Bush replied: "If Iraq attacks Israel tomorrow, I would assume the prime minister would respond. He's got a desire to defend himself."

But afterward, White House aides stressed that Bush was not giving a green light to Israeli retaliation if war between the United States and Iraq were under way. In that event, they emphasized, the United States and Israel would consult closely on a response, and the aides appeared to caution Israel against acting alone.

Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman, said, "Of course, a country has a right to defend itself." But in case of a U.S. war with Iraq, McCormack said, the United States would consult with Israel and other nations that could be targeted by Baghdad.

The United States and Israel are trying to avoid the tensions that flared between the two allies during the gulf war, when the United States exerted pressure on Israel not to respond to Iraqi Scud missile attacks.

After that war, Israeli officials pointed out that the United States had failed to destroy Hussein's arsenal of mobile Scud missile launchers and that the batteries of anti-Scud Patriot missiles dispatched to Israel had been largely ineffective. Many Israelis believe that their failure to retaliate against Iraq in 1991 weakened Israel in the eyes of the Arab world.

Sufficient warning

As a new conflict with Iraq looms, the United States has pledged to give Israel sufficient warning of U.S. military action - more than it did in 1991 - to enable Israel to bolster its defenses.

"There's no doubt that in the last decade, coordination and communication between the two militaries has improved significantly," an Israeli official said.

With Bush at his side, Sharon said: "We have never had such relations with any president of the United States as we have with you. And we never had such cooperation."

Many in Washington and in the Middle East say they fear that Israeli involvement in a U.S.-Iraq war would further inflame the region and possibly lead to a broader conflict that could draw in other countries.

Several weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress that it would be "overwhelmingly in Israel's interest to stay out" of any new U.S. war with Iraq.

One Israeli official interpreted Bush's remark yesterday that Sharon would have the right to retaliate if Iraq attacked Israel "tomorrow" as an endorsement of Israel's right to self-defense. At the same time, officials of both countries sought to retain an element of ambiguity as to how Israel might respond, to avoid giving Iraq the impression it could attack another state in the region with impunity.

Bush's meeting with Sharon and the East Room ceremony for the signing of the war resolution were highly visible signs of an administration taking preparatory steps toward possible war.

As he signed the resolution, Bush sounded a warning to nations in Europe and elsewhere that Iraq's pursuit of an arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons could cause "chaos" in the Middle East that would be felt beyond the region.

"Those who choose to live in denial," the president said, "may eventually be forced to live in fear."

Later, though, Bush sought to show he is prepared to wait for the United Nations to try to disarm Iraq without the use of force. In his appearance with Sharon, Bush said, "I have told the prime minister that my hope is that we could achieve a disarmament of the Iraqi regime peacefully."

"I am a patient man," the president said, adding, "We're giving the U.N. time to listen to the arguments and to hopefully come together soon to get a resolution which will achieve the objectives."

At odds over resolution

The United States and France have been at odds over a Security Council resolution that would spell out tough new terms for U.N. inspectors to search for Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

The Bush administration is pushing for a single resolution. It would spell out Security Council requirements for what Iraq must do to comply with inspections, and it would threaten force if Iraq balked.

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