U.S. troops in Israel keeping low profile

But timing, scope add significance to exercise

January 21, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Anyone reading Israeli newspapers knows that about 600 American troops arrived here in recent days and are helping Israel test a missile defense system. Escorted by Israeli police cars, the soldiers have been traveling in hard-to-miss convoys near Tel Aviv.

Officials from both countries, however, are doing their utmost to keep the American troops otherwise out of sight and out of mind, and to keep secret the details of what is billed officially as a training exercise.

Israeli and American officials have declined to comment publicly beyond a brief statement saying that the operation is part of a routine training drill conducted every two years to upgrade Israel's air defense systems. But the large scope of the exercise and its timing with the U.S. troop buildup near Iraq give it added significance.

"We're on the edge of a major war," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who lectures on Israel-American cooperation in intelligence matters. "Certainly, the scale and the timing of the current exercise can be called anything but routine."

What is officially billed as a joint exercise is scheduled to end Feb. 2 with the test firing of at least a dozen Patriot defensive missiles over the Negev desert. A Navy cruiser equipped with advanced radar and communications gear is participating. After Feb. 2, the soldiers are to depart for Europe.

U.S. officials seem determined to maintain a low profile for the exercise, to avoid offending Arab governments already nervous that many Arabs view the American buildup against Iraq as part of a Western conspiracy against Islam.

The U.S. Army has tightly restricted reporters' access to the troops, and American and Israeli military commanders briefed Israeli reporters yesterday at a meeting that was off-limits to American news media.

Speaking on condition that they not be named, the commanders said the scheduled tests of the Patriot missile batteries would simulate a response to an Iraqi attack. Troops are trying to determine how long it takes to set up and fire the missiles once an attack is detected.

Officials said three Patriot batteries were deployed around Tel Aviv, another in the northern city of Haifa. Two more are to arrive from Germany. They would be operated by Israeli and U.S. soldiers in the event of a conflict. American forces would provide Israel with the estimated trajectories of incoming rockets and help aim the defensive missiles. Israeli specialists would do the firing.

Last night, the Israeli army released a photo of two unnamed American soldiers dressed in combat gear standing next to the Israeli and American flags. The army also released video of a Patriot missile battery being set up.

During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel, most of them landing in or near Tel Aviv and destroying several apartment buildings. Israelis worry that this time any missiles launched by Iraq could be armed with chemical or biological weapons.

After the war, the U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles were found to have been largely ineffective against the Iraqi Scuds.

Since then, Israel has developed the Arrow missile system, designed to intercept incoming missiles at high altitude. Though it has never been used in combat, the $2 billion system passed several tests in recent months, including hitting multiple targets simultaneously. The Patriots are considered a backup to the Arrow.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, asked at a news conference Sunday to comment on the joint exercises, said: "We cannot compare the equipment that exists now to what was available then. It is much improved."

Sharon said, "We are not involved in the war, and we understand the sensitivity of the situation in the Middle East.

"I believe that the U.S. will take all the necessary steps, as Israel will, in order to avoid an attack on Israel," Sharon said. "We believe there is a danger, but we have taken all the precautions, and Israel is ready and well organized for every eventuality. I don't believe Israel will be attacked."

Before the gulf war, Israel had been reluctant to acknowledge that it needed help.

"Israel's policy had always been, `We can defend ourselves, just give us the equipment,'" said Steinberg. But that has changed in the past decade, and joint maneuvers with American forces have become routine.

The Navy took part in an exercise off Israel's coast last month that also involved Turkey.

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