U.S. doubts Israeli figures about damage of air war

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Israel is overstating the damage its air war has inflicted on the Hezbollah militia, which hides its weapons in tunnels and civilian neighborhoods throughout Lebanon, Bush administration and intelligence officials said yesterday.

Israeli assessments are “too large,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But he added, “We are not getting into numbers.”

Jerusalem military leaders have put out numbers such as “50 percent” and “one-third” to assess the damage its combat jets have done to Hezbollah’s arsenal of 13,000 rockets, and its mortars, launchers, vehicles and other military equipment.

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ayalon, told the Associated Press yesterday that bombing has destroyed more than 40 percent of Hezbollah’s arms.

A second government source said the amount destroyed is less than one-third.

Officials also said an air attack on Hezbollah’s headquarters bunker in south Beirut failed to kill any senior militia members, including leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The assumption is that no senior Hezbollah members were home when Israeli planes dropped 23 tons of munitions, including concrete-penetrating “bunker buster” bombs.

“We are unaware of any senior leadership being killed,” the official said.

Since July 12, Israel has struck up to 100 targets a day in an air war that has been years in the planning as it watched Hezbollah, its sworn enemy, build up its rocket force, bunkers and membership numbers in southern Lebanon. War planners are finding that much of Hezbollah’s firepower is hidden in hard-to-hit bunkers, tunnels or civilian neighborhoods, or is being spirited away in trucks after rockets are launched. Hezbollah, which touched off the current violence by invading Israel and kidnapping two soldiers, has fired as many as 1,000 short-range missiles at Israeli cities.

Still, Israel, using satellite imagery and human spies, had complied a long list of Hezbollah targets and has been able to destroy a significant number of Hezbollah assets using precision-guided bombs, a defense source said yesterday.

Israeli chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said yesterday the offensive has killed 100 Hezbollah guerrillas. A U.S.-designated terror group, Hezbollah has about 1,000 or fewer combatants, and several thousand active supporters or members.

The problem for Israel is, there are limits to air wars and there are missions that only ground troops can carry out. Aerial bombardment cannot get at all targets, or verify damage. That is one reason Israel is contemplating a limited invasion to clear out bunkers and create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah rockets.

“Clearly [Israeli attacks have] had a very significant impact on their military capability,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. “But Hezbollah still has a significant stockpile of rockets.”

Created with Iranian money and training in 1982, Hezbollah receives most of its rockets, the mainstay of its arsenal from Tehran, which ships them via highway routes through Syria to southern Lebanon. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the enforcers of Iran’s Islamic revolution and rigid theocracy, has sent advisers to Lebanon to train Hezbollah in how to operate new models of Katyusha, Fajr and Zelzal rockets that have hit Israel cities.

“They have been training Hezbollah types for a long time in Lebanon,” the counterterrorism official said of the two Shi’ite allies. “That’s been the case.”

Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah is committed to the destruction of Israel and the conversion of Lebanon to a radical Islamic state modeled after Iran, which funnels millions of dollars to the group each year.

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