An Israeli commando force is hunting for Scud missiles in western Iraq as America shows increasing signs of losing patience with the failure of the United Nations to reach agreement over action against Saddam Hussein.
Unit 262, Israel's equivalent of the SAS, is on a mission to foil any pre-emptive attack by Iraq on Israel that would undermine US war preparations. The Israelis decided to act despite America's recent promise to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, that the US would protect Israel from missile strikes, as it tried to do during the 1991 Gulf war.
Senior officials in Washington expect an imminent showdown at the UN if no consensus is reached on a new resolution governing the return of UN weapons inspectors to Baghdad. "It feels as if the crunch will come this week," said one. The Israelis, too, believe war is looming ever closer. They are understood to have deployed two teams of 24 commandos.
They have detected at least one Scud base in western Iraq. "Western Iraq is as big as Wales, and finding Scud missiles is extremely difficult," said an Israeli security officer. "The Iraqis pre-prepared their Scud-launching locations and hid the remaining missiles in the desert. One well-aimed missile with a chemical warhead could cause a catastrophe."
During the Gulf war 39 Scud missiles were launched from western Iraq, mostly at Israel. Carrying half a ton of conventional explosives, they caused great damage but few injuries.
Scud hunting is not the Israeli special forces' first mission inside Iraq. The same unit has planned at least twice to assassinate Saddam near the town of Tikrit. One operation was called off 24 hours before it was due to start after six soldiers were killed in a rehearsal.
On this mission the commandos hide by day and operate at night, when Iraqi missile convoys are most likely to be susceptible to ambush. They are provided with data from the Israeli spy satellite Ofek-5, which transmits images of Iraqi targets to Israel every 60 minutes. "The Ofek-5 photos have such good resolution that the commandos can read the registration plates of vehicles moving towards them from Baghdad," said a military source.
There would be little danger of an Iraqi missile attack at the outset of a conflict, said Brigadier-General Yaacov Amidror, an intelligence officer. "But after the first 10 days, when Saddam feels threatened, the situation will become dangerous." As another precaution Israeli air force officers are working with their Jordanian counterparts to detect low-level Iraqi planes flying towards Israel.
America is reported to be infuriated by the lack of co-operation from other allies. Washington was particularly incensed by the circulation last Friday of alternative draft UN Security Council proposals separately drawn up by Paris and Moscow. After six weeks' negotiations over the text of a new resolution, Washington believes the compromise text it has submitted should remain the sole basis of discussion. Paris and Moscow want to force Washington to return for a second Security Council debate should Saddam try to obstruct inspectors. If the French or Russians attempted to replace the American draft with their own, it would cause "intense irritation" in Washington, one official warned.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the UN, said the continuing discussion on the rival texts "shows that they're genuinely trying to conduct a negotiation". But he added: "I think they need to realise that the US and the UK are pretty firm about what they want to see in the text."
Washington remains determined that Baghdad should be threatened with "serious consequences" should it cheat or obstruct inspectors. Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, said France would work with America on Washington's resolution, but would present its own if no agreement could be reached. The struggle to produce a resolution has narrowed the window of military opportunity for Pentagon planners who had been hoping to mount a campaign this winter. But Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, is believed to be convinced that Saddam's regime is near collapse and that a short, sharp shove will force him out.