By IAN DEITCH, Associated Press Writer
LAHAV, Israel – Israeli and U.S. soldiers began joint maneuvers Sunday, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news – web sites) told his Cabinet the probability of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel was low.
As part of the military drill, a convoy of 30 U.S. military vehicles drove from the southern Negev Desert to central Israel on Sunday. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are participating in the exercise which tests Israel’s defense against incoming missiles.
The Israeli military said the drill was planned two years go and was part of routine training. However, military sources said the U.S. troops – who arrived last week – are to remain in Israel at least until the end of a possible U.S. war with Iraq.
Israelis’ war jitters were heightened after U.N. weapons inspectors last week found empty chemical warheads south of Baghdad. In the 1991 Gulf War (news – web sites), Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities, all with conventional warheads. At the time, Israel stayed out of the fighting at Washington’s request.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Sunday briefed the Cabinet about the army’s preparations, while Sharon played down possible risk to Israel.
“Israeli citizens can relax, and continue with their lives. The possibility that Israel will be attacked is low, and we have taken all the necessary steps to defend Israelis, all that with American coordination,” Sharon told reporters at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The U.S. military convoy – including Humvee jeeps, military ambulances and trucks – was escorted by Israeli army and police from the Negev Desert town of Beersheva toward Tel Aviv. Armed Israeli police and soldiers secured the roads and intersections the convoy passed through.
Red-and-yellow insignia and ranks decorated the U.S. vehicles. American troops were dressed in camouflage with a bright yellow fluorescent stripe down the side of their fatigues.
The U.S. troops brought new Patriot anti-missile systems with them, and the Israeli army said in a statement that in the coming days the two militaries would hold bilateral air defense exercises.
“This exercise, done for the third time now, has been planned for two years and is part of a routine training cycle designed to validated interoperability of the two countries’ air defense system,” the Israeli army said in a statement.
Since the Gulf War, when the Patriot system proved highly ineffective, Israel and the United States jointly produced the Arrow anti-missile system. Both the Patriot and the Arrow are designed to defend Israel from incoming Iraqi missiles – including ones with chemical or biological warheads – but the Patriot operates at a lower altitude than the Arrow.
Israel is also distributing gas masks to its citizens and has opened distribution centers for longer hours and extra days as the possibility of war increases. Soldiers are visiting classrooms to explain to children what to do in the case of a chemical or biological warfare strike.
The Health Ministry has inoculated thousands of rescue and medical officials against the small pox virus, and the government has launched a TV and radio ad campaign to inform residents what to do in the case of an attack. Stores are already selling “war kits” that include flashlights, first aid and masking tape for sealing doors and windows.