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Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer paid a visit to the secretive Ness Ziona Biological Institute yesterday.

The Home Front commander, Maj. Gen. Yosef Mishlav, said recently that the plan to transfer the Home Front to the Ministry for Public Security has been frozen, so defending the population from nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare is still in the hands of the defense minister.

Ben-Eliezer was accompanied to the institute by an unusually small entourage, to keep a low profile. Presumably, the concern about a possible attack by Iraq, with unconventional payloads delivered by either missiles or planes, was one of the main subjects in the briefing given the minister by his hosts.

According to security sources participating in Israeli preparations for a possible American move on Iraq, any decision by President George W. Bush about when to attack Iraq depends on three main elements: building the case against Saddam, including charges and evidence; identifying an alternative ruler to replace Saddam; and building up the forces that will execute the planned attack.

The defense establishment here believes that the Bush administration has given up trying to find an Iraqi version of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, so Washington is busy studying intelligence profiles of top Iraqi army commanders who could take control in Baghdad concurrent with or immediately after the start of an American campaign.

In a U.S. attack, Saddam won't hurry to attack Israel, say defense sources, because, among other reasons, he won't want to expose the weaponry that he managed to hide - and deny he had - over the past decade.

The sources note that unlike the spring of 1990, when Saddam was already threatening to "burn half of Israel" (before he invaded Kuwait) if attacked, no such threats toward Israel have been coming out of Baghdad.

However, should Saddam conclude that the Americans are about to topple him, he'll try to attack Israel with a barrage of missiles or airplanes. Topping Israel's worries are a possible ground-to-ground missile attack, with chemical or biological payloads.

The defense establishment reckons that much lower on the list of possibilities would be Iraq sending pilots on suicide missions, whether to drop non-conventional payloads, or to crash their planes. The loyalty of Iraqi pilots to Saddam, and their readiness to die for him, while his regime is crumbling, is not at all the same as that of Japanese kamikaze pilots, who were ready to die for their emperor at the end of World War II.

In contacts between Israeli and American defense officials over the past few weeks, the Pentagon's representatives were asked to plan their operations in Iraq in such a way as to minimize the Iraqi ability to move missile launchers into western Iraq, from which missiles can reach Israel. The Americans were told that Israel expects them to conduct operations, including on the ground, in western Iraq from the start of a campaign, and not to wait until Iraq starts launching missile attacks on Israel, as happened in 1991. Israeli officials say they believe the Pentagon will accede to this request.

The Pentagon meanwhile is very interested in technologies, weapons systems, and military doctrines developed in Israel over the past few years. In meetings in Washington with top defense officials and representatives of the Israeli defense establishment, led by Defense Ministry Director-General Amos Yaron, and including the head of weapons development and technology infrastructure Maj. Gen. Dr. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, videos were shown demonstrating examples of Israel's policy of "pinpoint targeting" in the territories. The emphasis was on combat helicopter attacks that caused no collateral damage to anything other than the target, even if many civilians were in the area.

American officers, from both the air force and special operations, visited Israel to learn about "pinpoint targeting" from IDF special operations commanders in the territories. Among other things, the Americans wanted to know about long-distance assassinations, along the lines of the operation - to kill Saddam Hussein - that foreign reports said was being rehearsed at the time of the Tze'elim 2 accident. The Americans were offered Israeli assistance in many areas, including inoculations against anthrax.

Along with the focus on Iraq, the defense establishment is keeping a close eye on developments in Iran. According to the latest Military Intelligence estimate, an event at Tarbit Madras University in Tehran a week ago, may be significant. Attended by government officials, including an adviser to Iranian President Muhamed Hatami, parliamentarians, and academic experts, the event was devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of the speakers opposed the conservative policy of the Iranian spiritual leader Ali Hamani and demanded moderation of the government line against Israel, a line that is more extreme than the Palestinians.

Military Intelligence's estimate appears to strengthen the position that Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy publicly stated last month when he said that there is hope for moderation in the Iranian regime.