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It wasn't a premiere performance, or even the dress rehearsal ahead of it, but when the history of the American campaign against Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein comes to be written, it may well be cited as one of the more important preludes, because of its location: the Iraqi airbase known as H-3, nearly 400 kilometers west (and slightly south) of Baghdad. U.S. Central Command reported the event two weeks ago. On September 5 at 9:30 A.M. (Israeli time), planes of the Western alliance, which lifted off from Kuwait, attacked a command and control facility of the Iraqi air defense network at H-3. The attack came in reaction to an Iraqi effort to shoot down the planes enforcing the no-flight zone in southern Iraq - though usually to the east of that zone (as distinct from the no-flight zone in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish region, bordering on Turkey). It was carried out by nine American F-15s and three British Tornados, which fired precision-guided munition. The attack formation was probably escorted, as usual, by dozens of interceptor, control, refueling, rescue and EW (electronic warfare) aircraft.

The facility that was attacked is located in the southwest airfield, one of the three fields that make up H-3, together with the main field and the northwest field. The "H" in H-3 refers to Haifa, which was the western terminal of the oil pipeline built by the British through Iraq and Jordan to its Mediterranean outlet. The airfields that the Royal Air Force established along the pipeline were intended to protect the oil against desert tribes. In June 1967, when Iraqi planes set out to attack the Israel Air Force (IAF) base at Ramat David - H-7 in the British system - they flew along the oil axis; and when Israeli planes lifted off from Ramat David to carry out a retaliatory raid (16 Israeli soldiers were killed when one of the Iraqi planes crashed into the Megiddo base) they flew along the same desert axis.

The IAF sorties against H-3 - using Vautour bombers defended by Mirage fighters - were unsuccessful. A pilot and two navigators were killed, and two pilots - Gideon Dror and Yitzhak Golan - were taken prisoner. No Iraqi soldier was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War - at the end of which the rescue of the prisoners was planned in a military operation under the command of a Paratroops officer, Zuri Saguy (Sheinkin). Saguy, who knew the Iraqi arena well in the wake of his liaison mission with the Kurds, was first ordered to carry out reconnaissance deep inside Iraq in order to prepare a complex raid involving a break-in to the prison where the soldiers were being held and an escape via Super-Frelon helicopters.

It was an old Israeli dream. In the 1950s, Israeli Air Force pilots had flown over the Western Desert in Egypt, in the hope of planning the rescue of the prisoners accused of membership in an Israeli spy ring (the "Esek Bish" - the fiasco - that burgeoned into the "Lavon Affair"). Saguy explained to his superiors that an adventure of this sort would almost certainly end in failure, with many casualties. A plane ticket to Iran would be cheaper and more efficient, he said.

Saguy flew to Iran, where, with the help of the Israeli military attache, Yaakov Nimrodi, and Kurds who were fighting the Iraqi regime, he began to mark out the route to and from the prison. Even as their preparations proceeded, the Iraqis transferred Dror and Golan to Jordan, so they could be swapped for the Jordanian prisoners being held by the Israeli army.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, too, the Iraqis flew along the oil axis to join in the hostilities. This was one of the intelligence and operational failures of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in that war: the IDF somehow lost the Iraqi expeditionary force along the way, and the subsequent unexpected encounter with the Iraqis on the Golan Heights blocked the momentum of the counterattack that was mounted by Northern Command. Since 1973, Israel and Iraq have exchanged air strikes: Israel against the nuclear reactor in Baghdad in June 1981, Iraq in the form of surface-to surface missiles a decade later.

The IDF commander of the Arava and Red Sea sector is charged with a mission: to eradicate any hostile force that threatens to invade Eilat and which, in order to split the military effort against it, also fires Katyusha rockets at Kiryat Shmona from the other side of the Lebanese border. It is a safe bet that the commander will relegate the need to deal with the Katyushas to the bottom of his list of priorities. That is exactly what General Norman Schwarzkopf did in the Gulf War. Schwarzkopf was in charge in the southeast of expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait and blocking their invasion of Saudi Arabia, when he was informed that Scud missiles launched from the west were landing in Israel. Smarter people than Schwarzkopf in the Pentagon and the White House forced him to make thousands of sorties in a hunt for the Scuds in the west. The aerial hunt was less effective than the one conducted on the ground by American, and especially British, commandos. After the war, the Israeli chief of staff, Ehud Barak, visited the mother-unit of the British reconnaissance unit, the SIS, to thank its people personally for their effort and their sacrifice.

The end of Saddam

In 1991, chemical warheads were found at the H-3 base, as at many other bases that were attacked or captured. The Iraqis did not have time, or did not want, to use them then. This time, though, they might try to launch chemical or biological material at enemy targets, both military and civilian. In the past year, the table of colors of terrorist warnings in America was made public; a similar though not identical table exists in Israel for sensitive dispositions. When the routine (Situation 1) becomes an emergency, the second-highest state of alert is Orange, and above that, Red. Situation 4, which is a warning of an impending atomic-biological-chemical attack, is Purple. The fifth and most severe stage, "Crimson," refers to an atomic, biological or chemical attack being conducted against a target in Israel.

The implications of an attack on that scale against Israel are obvious to everyone. Richard Cheney, the American defense secretary in 1991 and now vice president, chose his words in threatening Saddam Hussein with both Israeli and American nuclear weapons. Similar threats are now being voiced, but this time it is not they that will avert disaster, but Saddam's military feebleness, as compared with his might a dozen years ago, and the ability of the Americans and the IDF to operate effectively against him.

The end of the story is certain - the end of Saddam - but the plot details and the course of events are less so: Saddam will try to shape the narrative framework to provide a different reading, particularly in the Middle East. He will want not only an American-Iraqi war but an Arab-Israeli war, too, and perhaps also will want to demonstrate Western cruelty to innocent Arabs by allowing Iraqi civilians to be affected by combat materials that will be scattered in the wake of American attacks on the depots in which they are stored.

Therefore, the bombing of the H-3 base was the first combat operation, and not by chance in the western Iraq sector, of the current campaign - a campaign that will not be called off no matter what Saddam Hussein does. The western sector is secondary to the American military effort, but crucial for Israel. In order to hit Israel, Saddam has to shorten the range from the center of Iraq and move missile launchers to the west in secret. If the transport of the few launchers is disrupted one way or another, this will minimize the risk that the Arrow and Patriot antimissile systems will be called on to intercept the extremely few missiles that will, despite everything, be launched.

For 50 years, the defense doctrines of the American superpower and the Israeli regional power were based on similar principles: deterrence, warning, prevailing. Underlying the slogans were substantive differences, but in both cases there was reliance on strategic deterrence (which, in the Israeli case, included American support), intelligence warning against an attack, and the achievement of military superiority (Israeli blitz and, in the American case, storming and holding on) ahead of victory. One of the differences was the Israeli need to call up the reserves; now, too, in the campaign against terrorism based in the cities of the Palestinian Authority, the struggle depends ultimately on the reserves of strength of both sides, which determine their staying power. For the time being, and perhaps contrary to expectations, it turns out that the reserves of terror are more meager than the reserves of the IDF, the Shin Bet security service and the entire Israeli public.

Another difference involves preemption. Israel took action in 1956, 1967, 1981 (in Baghdad) and 1982, but not in 1973 and 1991, not to mention Palestinian terrorism in 2000, to preempt risks - sometimes genuinely, sometimes as a pretext. The Americans abandoned the idea of a preventive attack in the period when they had a nuclear monopoly, until 1949, and established a regime of mutual deterrence at the supreme strategic level of the confrontation with the Soviets. At the lower levels there were regional wars, political subversion and economic competition until the defeat of the Soviet Union. That reality, of life in the shadow of thousands of missiles and bombs, was possible because the two rival defenses, in Washington and in Moscow, divested themselves of ideologies of capitalism and communism and adopted a similar great-power logic. That logic spawned the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and the Soviets accepted the nuclearization of Britain and France.

Dense defenses

It was for precisely the same reason that the orderly world of the two great powers was skewed when the so-called Sino-Soviet bloc fell apart. China's thrust for independent nuclearization posed a threat to India, which in return sought its own nuclear capability, bringing Pakistan in its wake, thus spurring Iran, which induced Iraq to try to go nuclear, and so on. At a different level, Chinese nuclearization jolted American strategic thinking. Classified documents of the 1960s show how Chinese nuclearization, which was paltry compared with what the Soviets had, influenced American policy toward the development of antimissile missiles. The Pentagon's operations researchers calculated that a "dense" defense would undermine stability in the balance with the Soviets and that it would be better to make do with a "slender" defense, against Chinese missiles, for the 25 largest American cities. That was political folly, which explains why a computer should not be used to vote for the presidency. What head of a caucus or chairman of a committee in Congress, who represents a remote district that is not on the list of the 25 defended centers, would support a plan that will doom his constituency to nuclear extinction?

The solution that President Nixon and his national security adviser and then secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, came up with was to effect a breakthrough in policy toward China. That was even more important in terms of the confrontation with the Soviets than it was for stopping the war in Vietnam. The solution adduced by President Bush in his standoff with Saddam Hussein, and as a lesson of September 11, is completely different. The Cold War is over, and in the new war that is now being fought you must not allow your adversary to surprise you by showing up one morning with nuclear or chemical-biological missiles.

All leaders want to survive, and Saddam Hussein is no exception to this rule, but Saddam is not just Bush with a mustache, nor is Baghdad simply Washington in an Iraqi dialect. There is no guarantee of identity between the value systems in the two capitals or even in the two cultures. To borrow a notion from the sphere of the individual, or the tribe, there are cases in which blood revenge, or protection of the "family honor" by murdering one of its women is more important than life.

Bush is talking about an "axis of evil" consisting of Baghdad-Tehran-Pyongyang, and is thinking about the axis of time: every day that passes, every hour that goes by, increases the American offensive force but also brings Saddam and the others in the axis - of which Syria and Libya are secondary members - closer to the nuclear threshold. The intelligence failures are narrowing Bush's range of decision-making. He cannot reply on advance warning, and a world that contains an Iraqi nuclear bomb - and, in its wake, Iranian, Syrian and Egyptian bombs - will be a different world, one that those who calculate the end of time call the "setting of the sun."