Sharon hails Iraq war, urges Israel to be calm

Israeli premier sees `beginning of a new era'

War In Iraq

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

TEL AVIV, Israel - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hailed the U.S.-led war in Iraq as the "beginning of a new era" in the Middle East yesterday but also tried to calm a public nervous about possible missile strikes by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"The goal of this attack is the overthrow of a despot who possesses weapons of mass destruction and who has sown death, ruin and destruction among his people and among the entire world," Sharon said in a speech at a memorial service for soldiers killed fighting Palestinian militants.

Sharon made the comments after the first U.S. bombardment near Baghdad, but before the more-concentrated air war that began after nightfall.

Israeli officials, despite their unabashed support for the war, have tried to maintain a low profile to avoid fueling claims by critics who portray Israel as the catalyst for the hostilities.

Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel during the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago, and Israeli officials are trying to address domestic concerns about being targeted without making headlines abroad. Officials' refrain is, "This is not Israel's war."

Sharon has avoided addressing the nation, choosing instead to make his comments about the war at a low-key event scheduled weeks ago.

"I call upon all Israeli citizens to continue in their daily routines," Sharon said. "I urge you to follow and implement the instructions of the proper authorities, to send your children to kindergarten and school, and to go to work.

"I hope and believe that the successful conclusion of the American campaign in Iraq will mark the beginning of a new era, one that is better for our region and for the entire world," he said.

But while Sharon believes the war could push the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states toward democracy and peace, one Palestinian leader warned last night that the region could instead plummet into chaos.

"War should not have been an option," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "This region needs to learn that disputes can be resolved peacefully. This entire region will now be hindered by more complications."

Palestinians burned American flags in several cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians are worried that Israel might exploit the war to launch new military operations, particularly in Gaza, where it has targeted the militant group Hamas in a recent series of raids.

Erekat lamented that the U.S. strikes obscured a significant event in Palestinian history - the appointment this week of a prime minister, which effectively curbs the powers of Arafat and could be a step toward a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the war, Erekat said, Palestinian officials would "hold the U.S. to its word" to publish and implement an international peace plan, which President Bush promised upon the naming of a prime minister "with real power."

But the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been sidelined for two days, and Israelis express more concern about Iraqi missiles than Palestinian suicide bombers.

Schools were in session yesterday, but the Education Ministry reported that only about half the students registered in the Tel Aviv area, which was targeted in 1991, showed up for classes.

Yesterday, the Israeli army showed off an Arrow anti-missile base south of Tel Aviv. The system is designed to shoot down incoming Scuds at high altitudes, far away from Israeli cities.

The system, more advanced than the Patriot batteries installed by the United States, has performed well in tests but has not been used in war.

Under an agreement with the United States, which has about 600 troops stationed here, Israel has been promised detailed information within a minute of an Iraqi missile launch, giving authorities here about six minutes to sound air-raid sirens and activate defenses.

The Israeli military has said repeatedly that intelligence operatives have detected no Scud launchers in western Iraq, but officials are maintaining a high alert.

"Saddam has the will," Air Force Gen. Yair Dori told reporters during a tour of the Arrow battery yesterday. "We need to make sure that if he can launch, that we are ready to make an interception. I have full confidence that nothing will hit Israel again."

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