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Saturday, March 22, 2003 Adar2 18, 5763 Israel Time:  17:09  (GMT+2)
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Report: Israel may lower alert after west Iraqi
areas seized
By Amnon Barzilai, Haaretz Correspondent and Haaretz Service

U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, commander of the allied forces operation in Iraq, said Saturday that it was not known whether Iraq still had the capability of firing missiles at Israel.

"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.

Report: Israel may lower alert after west Iraqi areas seized
Israel Radio quoted sources in the defense establishment Saturday as saying that there would be a meeting at the start of next week to re-assess the level of alert in Israel, following the capture by allied troops of a large majority of the areas from which an Iraqi missile attack could reach Israel.

According to the report, the sources said that in light of the developments, the return of Israel to a normal routine would be decided upon.

However, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim said while it was possible the alert could be lowered soon, the war had just begun and the U.S. takeover of western Iraq was not complete.

"We will wait for them to take complete control of the area before assessing that the potential threat to us has been lifted," he told Israel Radio on Saturday.

Boim added that it was not impossible that Saddam Hussein or his sons would try attack Israel as a final act of defiance. "We don't know what is going on in Baghdad," he pointed out.

The airfields known as H-2 and H-3 in far western Iraq were taken without much resistance from Iraqi troops, defense officials said on condition of anonymity. They are important partly because Saddam Hussein is believed to have Scud missiles there.

Israel welcomed the news of the capture, calling it "a significant development," CNN television said.

Israeli intelligence has estimated that the chances that Israel will come under attack from Iraq were very low. Senior sources in the Home Front Command harshly criticized Thursday the decision to order residents to open their gas-mask kits as soon as the opening shots of the U.S.-led Iraqi campaign were fired.

"This is one big scandal. The country wasted billions of shekels over such a small possibility that it would be attacked," one senior source said Thursday.

A colleague echoed the thoughts and said, "A brave leadership would have said that this is not our war, and therefore would have said that there is no need for the public to prepare sealed rooms and no need to open the gas mask kits."

As a result of the decision, the Home Front Command will be forced to call up several thousand reservists to collect the millions of gas masks once hostilities are over. Israel will need a huge logistic operation to check the masks, change the filters, place the masks in plastic bags and pack them up once again in cardboard boxes. Following that, the expensive process of handing out the masks to the populace will take place.

One of the more peculiar issues that has attracted questions is the involvement of IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon in the order to open the gas mask kits.

Ya'alon's decision was not coordinated with the IDF's public information services or the Defense Minister's Office, and caused confusion and anger among the public.

"The chief of staff took part in the decision because today this is the sexy subject, and he really had no other pressing matters at that time," said a senior security source.

Ya'alon's involvement once again raises the question of who is supposed to be in charge of Home Front Command. At least four official reports in the past decade have recommended removing the Home Front Command from the authority of the IDF.

According to one approach, the fire services, Magen David Adom and the police, should be united with the Command, under the authority of the Public Security Minsitry. A second approach says that all of the rescue services should be grouped under some sort of national guard, similar to the arrangement in the United States.

However, more than anything else, the chief of staff's involvement reveals the weak position that Yossi Mishlav, the head of the Home Front Command is in. Security sources say that this is one of the failures of the Home Front Command, which has basically turned into a tool in the chief of staff's hands used to promote senior officers to the rank of Major-General before their retirement from the army.

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