U.S. sends Patriot missiles, 600 troops to Israel

Weapons would aid Israel if attacked by Iraqi Scuds

January 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The United States has sent Patriot antimissile systems and 600 troops to Israel to strengthen its ability to defend against missile attack.

Officially, the U.S. forces have been sent for an exercise that will test the ability of U.S. and Israeli missile defenses to work together. But the exercise will mean that U.S. forces will work alongside the Israeli military and be in position to help defend against attacks by Iraq's Scud missiles if President Bush decides to take military action to oust Saddam Hussein.

"We are now in the process of having an exercise," a senior Israeli official said. "We believe that if the time comes and we shall have hostilities we shall probably have American Patriot batteries deployed to Israel."

In the exercise, U.S. forces are to be based in Israel until mid-February, U.S. officials said. Their deployment, however, could easily be extended.

U.S. participation in the exercise is also expected to include an Aegis air defense cruiser. The Aegis has a sophisticated radar that can track enemy missiles and integrate the information into the land-based air defense command centers.

U.S. Patriot batteries were dispatched to Israel before the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and the Bush administration has a strong motivation to help its ally now as well. Washington is also trying to dissuade Israel from retaliating against Iraq if it comes under fire.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel has informed U.S. officials that Israel plans to strike back if it is successfully attacked by Iraq. Israel, however, would be under less pressure to respond if Iraqi missiles were intercepted by a combined U.S.-Israeli defense.

Washington fears that Israel's entry into a war could be exploited by Iraq, which would try to portray the conflict as one between Islam and a U.S.-Israeli coalition. Israeli officials say that the Patriot batteries sent to Israel for the 1991 gulf war were generally ineffective. Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel during that conflict, and U.S. intelligence believes Iraq has retained a small, secret arsenal of Scuds.

But the Patriot has been upgraded since then, and the Israelis see a role for it in a two-tier system that would include the Israelis' Arrow system, two batteries of which have already been deployed.

According to the Israeli plan, the Arrow system would try to shoot down Iraqi Scuds at high altitudes. U.S. and Israeli operated Patriots would concentrate on Scuds that leaked through, intercepting them at lower altitudes.

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