Israel trusts safety to Arrow missiles

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JERUSALEM — As the sun began to set Sunday afternoon, Israel's great white hope streaked into the winter sky.

The occasion was a dress rehearsal of the Arrow anti-missile system, which will be called on to protect Israeli cities if Iraq lashes out in the event of an American strike on Baghdad.

On Sunday, the air force fired four Arrow missiles from the Palmachim base, south of Tel Aviv, west toward the sea. The exercise tested the Arrow's ability to dispatch several missiles simultaneously to different targets.

Flights into Tel Aviv were temporarily suspended during the exercise, though there was no physical target: The incoming "missiles" existed only on a computer screen.

Nevertheless, Israel Aircraft Industries, the state-controlled aerospace manufacturer that created the Arrow, called the test "a successful multi-launching fly-out."

The Defense Ministry said the test's success was "a major step in response to the evolving threat of ballistic missiles in the area."

If the United States leads a war against Iraq this winter — a growing possibility — Israel believes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may launch missiles at Israel, as he did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

At the time, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, which tried to intercept them with U.S.-made Patriot missiles. However, that version of the Patriot could intercept incoming missiles only at lower altitudes, and the Scuds caused damage and several casualties in Israel.

This time Israel has the Arrow — or Chetz, as it is known in Hebrew — made by a team of more than 100 Israeli engineers and partially funded by the United States. It is considered the most advanced missile defense system in the world.

The Arrow can travel at nine times the speed of sound and intercept missiles more than 30 miles from their targets. It was created to work as a "stand-alone system," said Boaz Levi, the chief engineer on the project.