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Special forces operating in W. Iraq, unclear if
they control area
By Amnon Barzilai and Nathan Guttman, Haaretz Correspondents and Haaretz Service
The U.S. Department of Defense clarified Saturday that the U.S. and British troops are operating in western Iraq have not found Scud missiles, launchers, or related equipment, such as tankers for fueling the launchers. Troops have also found no indication of the existence of Scud missiles in the area.
Brigadier General Stanley McChrystal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a press conference Saturday that the U.S. has deployed special forces in western Iraq, but refused to say whether the U.S. already controls the air fields in the area. McChrystal went on to say that at present, U.S. troops have not encountered Iraqi attempts to launch Scuds. According to reports, the U.S. also has not located weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Also Saturday, U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, commander of the allied forces operation in Iraq, said that it was not known whether Iraq still had the capability of firing Scud missiles at countries in the region.
"One doesn't know whether the regime has the ability to strike any neighboring country with missiles," Franks said in response to a reporter's question on Iraqi strikes against Israel, in his first press briefing since the start of the war on Thursday.
"We do know that more than two dozen scud launchers remain unaccounted for since the days of the Gulf War. We also know that we want to provide the best defensive capability that we can and we know that we want to posture our force dispositions in a way that makes attacks on neighboring countries just as hard as we can make it.
American forces seized important airfields in western Iraq on Friday, the only part of the country from which Iraqi missiles are capable of reaching Israel.
Sources in the Israeli defense establishment said that it was likely that at deliberations early in the week, a decision would be made to end the high state of alert in the country. The sources told Israel Radio that the threat of an Iraqi missile strike has gone down in light of the fact that Allied troops have seized areas in Iraq from where an attack on Israel could be launched.
Despite the low likelihood of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel, the defense establishment advises waiting 2-3 days before making a decision that the threat has passed and the sealed rooms can be dismantled. Meanwhile, criticism of Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon's decision to instruct the public to open their gas-mask kits continues to mount.
Haaretz has learned that in internal discussions prior to Ya'alon's decision, high-ranking Defense Ministry officials advised holding back the instruction regarding the gas masks.
Meanwhile, it emerged at the weekend that despite the calming announcements regarding the threat to Israel, the Home Front Command is short of some 300,000 gas-mask kits. As a result, the General Staff has decided to hand over 50,000 army-issue masks from the Israel Defense Forces' emergency warehouses to the Home Front Command for distribution to civilians.
Defense Ministry sources said this weekend that the shortage, as well as the defects discovered in hundreds of thousands of kits distributed to the public, were a sign of organizational and administrative problems that cast a doubt on the quality of the civil defense system.
A high-ranking Defense Ministry official has suggested returning all the gas-mask kits to Home Front Command's emergency warehouses once the war in Iraq is over and the threat of a non-conventional attack on Israel has passed. The official advises redistributing the protective kits to civilians only on the eve of a war or an emergency situation.
In discussions held at the Defense Ministry last week, it was advised to hold back and not to decide on issuing instructions to open the gas-mask kits even in the event of the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq. Haaretz has learned that this view was supported by, among others, Brigadier General (res.) Shaul Horev, the defense minister's assistant for special projects, and Esther Krasner, who heads the Defense Ministry's NBC Protection Division.
Ministry sources said at that the weekend that the Home Front Command had been at fault, charging that for the past 18 months, the command had invested all its efforts in distributing the protective kits to the public, but that "in busying itself with equipping the citizens, computerization and the ongoing handling of the masks, the Home Front Command had lost its overview and general perspective."
It has emerged that the Home Front Command officials responsible for overseeing the behavior of the public were the one who had pressed hardest for the instruction to immediately open the kits. The damage caused by the move is estimated at more than NIS 1 billion.
Problems reported to the Home Front Command in the wake of the instruction to open the kits included complaints about broken and defective parts and faulty bellows in the hoods for children.