Israel is secretly playing a key role in U.S. preparations for possible war with Iraq, helping train soldiers and Marines for urban warfare, conducting clandestine surveiliance missions in the western Iraqi desert and allowing the United States to place combat supplies in Israel, according to U.S. Defense and intelligence officials.
The activities are designed to help shorten any U.S.-led war with Iraq and reduce the risk that Israel would be attacked during such a conflict. Israel's involvement is highly sensitive. The perception that the United States is working with the Jewish state to wage war against a Muslim country could undercut the already shaky support for an invasion among friendly Arab states.
The Bush administration wants to help protect Israel from an Iraqi missile attack, a likely response from Saddam Hussein to a U.S. invasion. Despite that short-term risk, Israel supports ousting Saddam's regime as a way to eliminate the threat posed by his chemical and biological weapons.
Because Israeli activities are classified, they have drawn little attention or criticism in the Middle East. "The Americans have asked us to keep a low profile, and we accept that," an Israeli official says. Speaking on condition of anonymity, members of the Bush administration, intelligence officials and diplomats described Israel's involvement:
*The Pentagon has beefed up stocks of ammunition, fuel and other basic military supplies at six storage depots in Israel over the past year, U.S. Defense and intelligence officials say. The material is not part of normal U.S. military aid to Israel but would be held in reserve for possible use by U.S. forces in combat contingencies, such as a threat to Israel by a neighboring state or commando missions into western Iraq by U.S. forces. The locations of the depots are classified.
*Israeli infantry units with experience in urban warfare during the Palestinian uprising helped train U.S. Army and Marine counterparts this summer and fall for possible urban battles in Iraq, a foreign defense official says. The Israelis have built two mock cities, complete with mosques, hanging laundry and even the odd donkey meandering down dusty streets. A Defense official said the sites far surpass U.S. facilities. The locations of the training centers also are classified.
*Israeli commando teams, using their own satellite intelligence and imagery provided by U.S. intelligence services, have conducted clandestine surveillance missions in recent months in western Iraq, according to the intelligence official and a senior Pentagon official. Scud missiles launched from western Iraq could reach Israel. The teams have mapped concrete launch pads built by the Iraqis to improve the accuracy of their Scuds. They have also helped do reconnaissance that could assist U.S. commandos who may be sent into Iraq.