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September 27, 2002

Sharon links Arafat siege to Iraq war

JERUSALEM — In the face of mounting international criticism, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the real reason for his siege of Yasser Arafat is to prevent Palestinians from escalating militant attacks in the run-up to a U.S. war on Iraq.

"A great deal of thought went into the operations in Ramallah," Sharon said in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with the Jerusalem Post published today.

"I see here a Palestinian intention to escalate the terror attacks before a possible U.S. action in Iraq. Their operating assumption is that as the U.S. operation against Iraq gets closer, it will become more difficult for Israel to act against them because Israel will not want to make things difficult for the U.S. administration."

Sharon told the Post it was never his intention to physically harm the Palestinian leader, but rather to shrink the operational space of suspected militants believed trapped with Arafat in his besieged Ramallah headquarters.

"The problem is that this sort of operation involves the possibility of physically harming Arafat ... so I didn't order (troops) in," Sharon said.

"We took down the buildings in the compound and left him in a little hovel. We took them down until we got to the point where any further action was liable to cause the structure he is in to fall on top of him."

The prime minister's comments came amid signs Israel may be ready to back away from the week-long standoff, which has been mired in futile negotiation as the Sharon administration bears the brunt of political attack, including censure from the United Nations Security Council.

Israel may be willing to drop its demand that Arafat hand over as many as 50 suspected militants in exchange for assurances they will be placed under "genuine arrest" in the West Bank, a senior Israeli source told the Ha'aretz newspaper.

The security official said the crisis can only come to an end if Israel gets "a satisfactory result" on the matter of the wanted men.

In his interview with the Post, Sharon described growing criticism of Israel by U.S. President George W. Bush over the siege as a disagreement between good friends.

Sharon also spelled out his policy on how Israel would respond in the event of an attack by Iraq, reserving the right to fight back if harm comes to its citizens regardless of U.S. calls for restraint.

"If Iraq attacks Israel, but does not hit population centres or cause casualties, our interest will be to not make it hard on the Americans," he said.

"If on the other hand, harm is done to Israel, if we suffer casualties or if non-conventional weapons of mass destruction are used against us, then definitely Israel will take the proper actions to defend its citizens."

But Sharon downplayed either scenario, saying the U.S. learned a lesson during the 1991 Persian Gulf War after not taking sufficient steps to eliminate Iraq's missile capabilities. During the first conflict, Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles toward Israel.

"Because (the U.S.) learned this lesson, I think that they will carry out the necessary operations to prevent a situation where Israel will need to take action," Sharon said.
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