THE WAR BEGINS
The long anticipated American-led war against Iraq finally got underway the third week of March, to the actual relief of many Israelis who had grown weary of waiting for it to begin. Like a hospital patient needing a cancerous node to be removed, the public had long ago concurred with George W. Bush and Tony Blair that the notorious Saddam Hussein needed to go, however painful that operation might be. The agonizingly long, and financially crippling, wait for the attack to be launched had finally come to an end, whatever the war’s outcome might be.
When informed by Washington on the evening of March 19th that the US-UK-Australian joint attack was about to be launched, the Israeli government immediately ordered all citizens to open up their previously issued gas mask kits and try them on—just in case. That came several days after officials instructed citizens to seal off selected rooms against a potential chemical or biological attack, and to prepare stocks of extra food and water.
The first weekend of the nearby war—raging just a few hundred miles east of tiny Israel—was a tense one for the wary public, especially for residents of the metropolitan Tel Aviv area that was repeatedly struck by Saddam’s terrifying Scud missiles just 12 years ago. However, when no missile launchings took place by Sunday, most residents of the heavily populated coastal plane cast aside their defensive kits and went back to normal life. The propensity to drop the masks was reinforced when news came in that US forces had captured two key Iraqi air bases in the vast western desert, from where Saddam’s frightening Scuds were fired during the Gulf War.
Although the government was immensely relieved that no missile attacks took place in the initial days of the war—seemingly confirming Ariel Sharon assessment that the threat of attack was relatively low this time around—officials nevertheless urged citizens to remain vigilant. They noted that the war was only just beginning, adding that it probably would not be as quick or decisive as most Western military analysts, including some Israeli ones, had earlier predicted. They said allied control over the western Iraqi “Scud Box” was not complete, noting that it only takes a few hours after dark to wheel out a camouflaged missile launcher, place a buried Scud missile on it, and fuel and fire it up (allied military commander Tommy Franks said on March 22nd that Iraq is believed to still possess over two dozen launchers not accounted for after the 1991 war, two of which were discovered and destroyed in the western desert on March 24th).
The fact that President Bush has openly declared that the war’s ultimate aim is “regime change,” not just total disarmament, has Israeli officials especially on edge. While fully supporting Saddam’s ouster, and the sooner the better, they realize that the dictator is likely to lash out with anything possible as the final death knells of his vicious regime are sounded. That prospect will leave Israeli forces on a high state of alert until the expected allied victory over Iraq is fully achieved, however long or short a time that takes.
Israeli security experts say that Saddam’s tyrannical regime is thought to be illegally hiding at least 20 Scud missiles, some of them in the sparsely populated desert next to Jordan. They note that United Nations officials had earlier stated that 14 of the banned missiles were still unaccounted for from the Gulf War. They are also suspicious that Saddam may possess some Russian-made cruise missiles that can travel at low altitudes above the horizon—a poorer version of the American Tomahawks playing a crucial role in the current conflict. Although cruise missiles are not designed to carry chemical warheads, they could cause widespread panic by striking strategic Israeli targets.
Security officials are said to be especially concerned that Saddam’s crumbling forces might try to strike one of Israel’s two nuclear reactors, as they attempted to do in 1991, in order to spread deadly radiation around the small country. The fact that dispersed nuclear fallout would probably filter down onto Iraq itself (the prevailing winds being from west to east) might be of little concern to the dying regime, they fear.
As they closely follow the fighting in nearby Iraq, many Israeli military officers, government leaders like Ariel Sharon, and not a few political commentators are probably re-living the extremely difficult Lebanon War that took place decades ago. Many say they see quite a few chilling parallels between that war and the current conflict. As occurred then, a militarily superior Western democracy, supported by one main ally, has taken a very controversial decision to enter an Arab country known to be harboring threatening weapons. In 1982, the invasion was undertaken by Israel—quietly supported by the Reagan administration, but opposed by most of the rest of the world. Today it is Washington itself leading the charge, aided by London and Canberra, but opposed by many countries, including Russia, China, France and Germany.
In both cases, opponents of the controversial wars claimed in advance that the invading troops could easily get bogged down in protracted, guerilla-style fighting. Both Israeli and American leaders contended that their military advances would be swift, and the war probably completed in a relatively short time. In the meantime, Shiite residents living in the south of both Sunni-majority Arab countries would supposedly welcome the non-Muslim forces as liberators. Invading troops would rapidly advance to the main capital city located in the centre of each country, and swiftly flush out hostile fighters with their superior military force—freeing the oppressed natives to make peace with the liberating powers.
In the end, the Lebanon War turned out to be Israel’s darkest nightmare. Domestic opposition grew as the complicated military operation stretched out over many months, not the days or weeks first promised by the government headed by Menachem Begin. While Shiite residents of southern Lebanon did indeed initially welcome IDF soldiers as liberators from detested PLO oppression, they quickly changed their tune as the “infidel” troops hunkered down for a longer stay.
The expected lighting expulsion of Arafat’s rogue forces from the Lebanese capital city, Beirut, proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. The hoped for internal Lebanese pressure on his gunmen to flee the city—thus sparring it from serious bombing attacks to flush them out—did not materialize. Instead, renowned Arab pride took over as the besieged Arafat refused to give up, while deliberating stationing his armed PLO forces in the midst of civilian areas to maximize civilian casualties. As Arafat and his Lebanese Muslim allies anticipated, the world media focused on the “illegal” Israeli bombardment of Beirut and the resulting mounting toll of civilian dead and wounded, adding to international condemnation of the Begin government. In the end, the main military goal was achieved, but at a much higher political, economic and military cost than originally projected.
THEN AND NOW
Of course, the protracted war in Lebanon may have begun with some striking similarities to the current battle in Iraq, but end totally differently. If fact, Israeli leaders and citizens have about the most reasons of any people on earth to hope for a swift and complete allied victory over the wicked Saddam. However, many are concerned that US and UK forces may find that the road ahead is more difficult than pre-war projections generally anticipated, which already seemed to be the case as the conflict neared the end of its first week.
An early indication of that possibility was the fact that mass army desertions did not take place in the first days of the war, as many had predicted they would (although there were some significant defections and surrenders). This was despite the fact that Iraqi forces stationed in the south of the country were located away from Saddam’s Baghdad heartland. Also Shiite Iraqis, who comprise the vast majority in southern Iraq, did not seem to welcome coalition forces as liberators in the manner many expected. However, Israeli analysts said this was partially due to the fact that Saddam’s loyalists were still operating in the area—instilling fresh fears of the regime in the populace. Apart from this, they said many Shiites still deeply resent the fact that US forces stood by while Saddam was allowed to reassert his control over the area just after the Gulf War, slaughtering many people who revolted against his despotic rule in the process.
THE BATTLE FOR BAGHDAD
Israeli military analysts cannot avoid examining the apparent similarities between the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, and the current allied attack upon Baghdad. Both urban centres are important Arab capital cities. Both contain many civilians living near important government buildings and military outposts. The main differences between Beirut and Baghdad are not positive for the American-led offensive: Baghdad is some five times the size of Beirut, and it is also one of the most hallowed Islamic cities in the world. On top of these difficult facts, it is not some rogue militia that must be flushed out of the urban jungle by non-Arab forces, but the very entrenched Baathist regime that has harshly ruled the land since 1963 (with Saddam at its head since 1979).
As I write, the allied ground offensive against Baghdad is just beginning. Israeli analysts generally believe it will likely be both bitter and intense. Many expect the five elite Republican Guard divisions defending the capital to fight to the very end, possibly deploying chemical weapons in the process. They say the unexpectedly stiff resistance that quickly emerged from the southern city of Basra and in the strategic Euphrates River town of Nasiriyah, indicated that an extremely difficult war was just beginning. Some said widespread forecasts that Iraqi troops would lay down their arms and surrender en masse—based on experiences during the Gulf War—were extremely unrealistic, given that the fight this time is not to keep control over an occupied neighboring country (Kuwait), but to repel an “arrogant infidel invasion” of their own homeland.
Some Israeli analysts opined that coalition war planners had not taken sufficient account of the great grip that despotic Arab-Islamic regimes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan hold over their captive citizens. The fear factor is immense in such regimes, they note, and very difficult to quickly quash or overcome. The government hold over citizens is even more powerful than the intimidation practiced by Communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and its captive satellite states, they say, since it blends terrorist military oppression with widely accepted Islamic religious motifs. Due to the demonic nature of such tyrannical regimes, almost anything goes in times of war. Therefore, they warn that captured allied prisoners of war may well be harshly mistreated and even slaughtered, as some Israeli POWs in Syrian and Lebanese hands have been.
Analysts say the worst-case scenario, and one that not a few experts here believe is entirely possible, projects Saddam turning his heavily populated capital city into one big suicide bomb. They note that his recent speeches have mentioned shahids, or Islamic suicide martyrs, many times—echoing his regional buddy, Yasser Arafat. Analysts say the brutal Butcher of Baghdad, who has gleefully murdered some of his own family members, could well decide to take his people with him as he nears his final hour. He might do this by unleashing chemical or biological weapons against allied forces as they march into the heart of his regime. An even more hellish fear is that the crumbling strongman might have acquired one or two KGB-built suitcase nuclear bombs and placed them somewhere inside Baghdad’s sprawling metropolitan borders, ordering a demonic detonation in the end to produce the ultimate suicide attack against besieging English-speaking forces.
ISRAEL ON THE BLOCK
Although such a catastrophic close of the current conflict is thought to be remote, Israeli leaders are very concerned over two other immediate threats looming on the horizon. One is the possibility of a wider regional conflict. War wariness was reinforced by growing Arab street support in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere for Saddam’s “brave resistance against the infidel aggression.” Fierce anti-American sentiments in Jordan have raised concerns that King Abdullah may be overthrown, hurtling the region toward an explosive new Arab-Israeli bust-up. The threat of a Hizbullah assault from southern Lebanon remains very real as well, especially if Western forces get bogged down around Baghdad. Harsh government condemnations of the allied invasion in Syria are also being closely watched in Jerusalem, as are increasingly negative reactions in Iran.
The second threat is a political one that may prove even more dangerous in the end: Pledges by both Bush and Blair that they will immediately follow up their widely unpopular attack on Iraq by pushing hard for a Palestinian state to arise inside Judaism’s biblical heartland. On the eve of the Iraqi campaign, both leaders emphatically stated that the so-called “Road Map” peace plan would be published in the near future, and implemented soon after that. The White House appeared to be backing away from previous promises to PM Sharon that Israel would be able to voice objections to the plan before it is published. Israeli leaders increasingly feel that they will be asked to pay the political price for shrill Arab opposition to the allied invasion by agreeing to the establishment of a harrowing Palestinian state on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
With the deadly winds of war again blowing over the turbulent Middle East, we who reside here and know the Lord are especially glad that we can stand on the many promises given by Israel’s Eternal King, including this one in Psalm 121: “The Lord will protect you from all evil. He will keep your soul. The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forever.”