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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Patriot missiles readied for Israel
Patriot launch over Tel Aviv
Patriots might not have hit anything over Israel in 1991
By defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

A unit of the anti-missile Patriot system is being readied at a US Army base in Germany amid reports it may be sent to Israel as a precaution against the possibility of long-range missile attack from Iraq.

The Patriot battery is being readied for deployment at short-notice, but both US and Israeli officials seem to be playing down the significance of the report.

Patriots have been sent to Israel before, notably during the Gulf War in 1991 and during a period of tension between the US and Iraq in December 1998.

Patriot missile
The Patriot has undergone substantial changes since 1991
It is unclear if these preparations are in response to some specific intelligence threat from Baghdad or just uncertainty about the intentions of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The Americans may fear Iraq could try to exploit the distractions of the US presidential campaign and embark upon some military moves of its own.

Best defence

A Patriot battery consists of eight launchers, 64 missiles and their associated radars, but it is not clear if the full battery will be despatched to Israel or just part of it.

The Patriot was widely used in the Gulf War but is not credited with hitting any incoming Iraqi missiles.

Scud missile during 1991 Gulf crisis
Iraq claims to have no more of its Scud missiles
Nonetheless, the Americans say that software improvements and other changes now make it the only credible western weapon that can defend against ballistic missile attack.

The potential Patriot deployment underscores the close strategic relationship between the US and Israel but it also raises significant questions.

Paper tiger?

It is not clear how many missiles Iraq has - if any - that would be capable of reaching Israel.

Iraq says it has none of the long-range Scuds, but Richard Butler, the former head of Unscom - the UN body overseeing the destruction of Iraq's banned weapons programmes, disagrees.

And recent US and German intelligence reports claim there has been renewed missile building and testing in Iraq, though apparently of shorter-range systems that it is allowed to build.

Coming in the run-up to a closely fought presidential campaign, the proposed Patriot move could have some minor domestic impact within the US, demonstrating the Clinton-Gore administration's resolve in dealing with Iraq.

But it also underscores that successive administrations have tried to deal with the problem posed by the Baghdad regime without being able to come up with any definitive answers.

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See also:

24 Mar 00 | Americas
US replaces Patriot missiles
17 Dec 98 | LATEST NEWS
Israel deploys Patriots
01 Aug 00 | Middle East
Flashback: Invasion of Kuwait
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