US saw Lebanon war as step towards Iran strike, report claims

By Andrew Buncombe

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration was informed in advance and gave the "green light" to Israel's military strikes against Hizbollah - drawn up months before the militia seized two Israeli soldiers - it has been claimed.

The US reportedly considered Israel's actions as a necessary prerequisite for a possible strike against Iran.

A report by a leading investigative reporter says that earlier this summer Israeli officials visited Washington to brief the government on its plan to respond to any Hizbollah provocation and to "find out how much the US would bear".

The officials apparently started their inquiries with the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, knowing that if they secured his support, obtaining the backing of the President and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be easier.

The report by Seymour Hersh quotes an unidentified US government consultant with close ties to the Israelis who says: "The Israelis told us it would be a cheap war with many benefits. Why oppose it? We'll be able to hunt down and bomb missiles, tunnels, and bunkers from the air. It would be a demo for Iran."

A former intelligence officer also quoted, says: "We told Israel, 'Look, if you guys have to go, we're behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later. The longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office'."

Both Israeli and US officials say that the Israeli military operation against Hizbollah was triggered by the seizing of two Israeli soldiers, apparently to be bargained with for a possible prisoner swap.

But Hersh's report, published in the New Yorker, adds to evidence that Israel had been anticipating a Hizbollah provocation for some time and planning its response - a response that was widely condemned for being disproportionate.

Last month the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "Israel's military response by air, land and sea to what it considered a provocation last week by Hizbollah militants is unfolding according to a plan finalised more than a year ago".

The report said that a senior Israeli army officer had been briefing diplomats, journalists and think-tanks for more than a year about the plan and it quoted Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at [Israel's] Bar-Ilan University, who said: "Of all of Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared."

Last week the New Statesman magazine reported that Britain had also been informed in advance of the military preparations and that the Prime Minister had chosen not to try and stop them "because he did not want to".

This latest report is the first to directly tie the Israeli operation to a broader framework that includes a possible US strike against Iran to end its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.

Unidentified officials said a strike could "ease Israel's security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American pre-emptive attack".

Shabtai Shavit, a national security adviser to the Knesset, said: "We do what we think is best for us, and if it happens to meet America's requirements, that's just part of a relationship between two friends. Hizbollah is armed to the teeth and trained in the most advanced technology of guerrilla warfare. It was just a matter of time."

An anonymous Middle East expert said to have knowledge of the US and Israeli thinking, says while the State Department supported the plan because it believed it would help the Lebanese government assert control over the south, the White House was focussed on stripping Hizbollah of its missiles.

The expert adds: "If there was to be a military option against Iran's nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hizbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel. Bush wanted both.

"Bush was going after Iran, as part of the axis of evil, and its nuclear sites, and he was interested in going after Hizbollah as part of his interest in democratisation."

The White House made no comment yesterday.

A National Security Council spokesman tells the New Yorker: "Prior to Hizbollah's attack on Israel, the Israeli government gave no official in Washington any reason to believe that Israel was planning to attack."

- INDEPENDENT

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