Israel: We're Not Pushing for Early Strike

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres says Israel is not trying to pressure the Bush administration to speed up a military strike against Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the timing of such an assault is solely a U.S. decision.

A Foreign Ministry statement was published Saturday, a day after other Israeli officials said that delaying action would only allow Saddam to expand his arsenal. The new statement quoted Peres as describing Israel as "a soldier in the camp of nations fighting terror, at the head of which stands the President of the United States."

"As such," Peres added, "Israel is not making proposals or pushing the United States."

Israeli intelligence officials have gathered evidence that Iraq is speeding up efforts to produce biological and chemical weapons, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Friday.

"Any postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose," Sharon adviser Ranaan Gissin said. "It will only give him [Saddam] more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons of mass destruction."

The United States has been considering a military campaign against Iraq to remove Saddam from power, listing him as one of the world's main terrorist regimes. However, there is considerable world opposition to a U.S. strike.

As evidence of Iraq's weapons building activities, Israel points to an order Saddam gave to Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission last week to speed up its work.

Gissin said Israel was not seeking to dictate the timing of a U.S. military campaign but said that, faced with the threat of one, Saddam was fast developing weapons.

While the Israeli government backs U.S. action against Iraq, there is also concern in Israel that in response, Iraq would launch missile attacks against Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel.

During the 1991 Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces pushed back an Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait, Iraq hit Israel with 39 Scud missiles -- none of them with chemical or biological warheads -- causing few casualties but extensive damage.

In the 1991 conflict, the United States worried it would lose Arab support if Israel retaliated for the strikes, and under heavy pressure Israel reluctantly agreed to hold back. However, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel would defend itself against any new attacks.

In an interview published Friday, Ben-Eliezer told the daily Yediot Ahronot that Israel would surely become a target during such a conflict and would consider retaliation in coordination with U.S. forces.

"We will be one of the main targets," he told the newspaper. "What I told the Americans, and I repeat it: 'Don't expect us to continue to live with the process of restraint. If they hit us, we reserve the right of response.'"