World - Reuters

Israel: Iraq Modified Planes for Chemical Raids

Date: Mon, Apr 26, 2004

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Iraq (news - web sites) modified aircraft for possible chemical weapons attacks against Israeli targets before last year's U.S.-led invasion, Israel's army chief said on Monday.

"We identified them: drones, Tupolev-16s and Sukhoi (aircraft)," Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaalon told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in an interview for Israel's annual memorial day.

"They were specially fitted for these kinds of missions -- dispersing chemical weapons. There is no need for enormous quantities...we are talking about dozens or no more than hundreds of kilos of (chemical) material," he said.

Asked why U.S. and international inspectors had found no trace of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, Yaalon said: "Perhaps they were transferred to a neighboring country, such as Syria. It is possible they buried (the weapons)."

Syria has denied it allowed Iraq to hide banned weapons on its soil.

The United States and Britain invaded Iraq in March 2003 saying Western intelligence had identified weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq that posed an imminent threat to the West and its allies.

In the months preceding the invasion and in the year since international inspectors have not found any chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, though the search is continuing.

The failure to find banned weapons has raised questions about the U.S. and British governments' decision to go to war.

Yaalon told Yedioth Ahronoth Israeli military intelligence had gathered information that Iraq modified the aircraft for possible use against Israel at least eight months before U.S.-led forces moved in to topple Saddam Hussein (news - web sites).

But he said the prospect of retaliation apparently had deterred Baghdad from using its chemical arsenal and spurred it to get rid of any evidence.

"The Iraqis decided at a certain stage to conduct a policy of survival," Yaalon said, without giving any details about the so-called stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

Yaalon said U.S. forces were able to destroy the modified aircraft on the first or second day of the war, "because we had located them."

There was no immediate response to Yaalon's comments from the Defense Department.

Yaalon made the remarks a month after an Israeli parliamentary inquiry found that Israeli intelligence had overestimated Iraq's military capabilities.

Before the hostilities, Israel issued its citizens with gas masks for fear Iraq would strike with non-conventional missiles -- an escalation of its 39 Scud salvoes in the 1991 Gulf war.

After the U.S. invasion passed without attack on Israel, the army came under criticism for having ordered the public to put protective plastic sheeting on windows and open sealed gas mask kits at a replacement cost of millions of dollars.

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