Will Iraq attack Israel

JERUSALEM — Israel received indirect assurances from Iraq on Tuesday that it will not be targeted by unconventional weapons because Iraq neither has them nor has the desire to use them against Israel in the present crisis.

A government source said the Iraqi position was spelled out in detail to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Posuvalyuk during one of his recent trips to Baghdad and was relayed by Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bogdanov.

Israel's Channel 2 reported that a number of messages have been exchanged between Israel and Iraq over the past week. The content of the messages from Baghdad is that it has no intention of attacking Israel, the TV station said.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, interviewed by the station from Kiryat Shmona, confirmed that messages have been relayed between Jerusalem and Baghdad.

"I can only say that [the Iraqis] know our thoughts and intentions, that we support the United States," he said, adding that all those who need to know are aware of Israel's freedom to retaliate if attacked.

However, Iraq denied reports it had sent a message to assure Israel that Baghdad would refrain from firing missiles at it. The Iraqi News Agency quoted an Information Ministry spokesman as "totally denying that President Saddam Hussein sent a message through any party to the Zionist entity." It gave no details.

Israel Radio said that a Western diplomat in Jordan was the source of the reported signal to Israel from the Iraqi leader. According to the diplomat, Russia pressed Saddam to send the message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of Russia's efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis.

"We have heard the public messages and know about some of the secret messages," said Mordechai.

"The other side also knows our clear-cut and unequivocal messages — that we want to be outside the cycle of violence, despite our clear interest that the U.S. continue its policies…to bring about the return of U.N. forces to Iraq to supervise what is happening there."

Mordechai said the defense establishment encourages the United States to maintain pressure on Iraq.

"We speak with the American administration and representatives of the U.S. armed forces daily, and we are encouraging them to continue with their policy," Mordechai said. "Every inch of Iraq has to be checked to make sure it is not producing unconventional weapons and does not have long-range missiles."

Speaking at Bar-Ilan University, Mordechai said he is confident the United States would use force if Saddam refuses to allow U.N. weapons inspectors free access to suspected weapon caches.

"It is a difficult situation for us. We are not part of the conflict," Mordechai said during another talk to Israel Bonds delegates. "We know that Saddam Hussein is a man that no one can really understand what he can do and how he can react when he will be under heavy attack from the United States, and we must be able, if some unfortunate thing happens here, to defend our people."

Meanwhile, 125,000 gas masks have arrived from the Netherlands, and by this weekend, 125,000 Dutch protective suits are due as well, a defense source said.

At the United Nations Tuesday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan cleared his calendar to work on a possible package he could discuss with Iraq, as Britain warned Baghdad that London and Washington are not bluffing when they threaten air strikes.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Parliament that London welcomes recent signs that Iraq is ready to consider a diplomatic solution. But he said Saddam "would be making a major miscalculation if he mistook our reluctance to use force with a lack of determination to use it if necessary."

If Saddam does not accept the diplomatic initiatives offered to him, "it is the Iraqi regime that will bear responsibility for the consequences," Cook said.

Russia and China stepped up their opposition to a military strike, and France said the chances for a diplomatic solution are narrowing.

President Clinton thanked Canada and Australia for offering to join in U.S.-led military action.

"I hope we can avoid the use of force. But if [Saddam] will not comply with the will of the international community, we must be prepared to act, and I am very grateful that others are prepared to stand with America," Clinton said.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced in Ottawa that Canada is sending a frigate, two Hercules transport aircraft and 300 to 400 troops to the gulf to join the military coalition against Iraq.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen won an agreement from Oman to station U.S. support planes on its territory for a possible strike against Iraq.

But Qatar distanced itself from U.S. contingency plans to attack Iraq, saying that Washington had made its arrangements with other gulf states and that Qatar hopes for a peaceful solution.

Russia, France and China, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have all been critical of the U.S. stance. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said a military strike "will result in heavy human casualties, heighten regional tensions and even trigger more serious conflicts."

Russia and Italy said they are sending a joint appeal to Saddam to avert an "unpredictable conflagration."

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov said Moscow fears the consequences of "applying massive firepower against [Iraqi] arsenals of mass destruction."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Sahaf held talks in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad Tuesday. Despite backing the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition seven years ago, Assad has firmly rejected any military strike this time around.

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said Ankara's support for a U.S. strike against Iraq is not guaranteed. Turkey backed Washington in the 1991 Gulf War, but complains that it has lost more than $35 billion in trade with neighboring Iraq since sanctions were imposed.