- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

U.S. intelligence agencies helped Israel track down a Palestinian ship that tried to smuggle a large supply of weapons obtained from Iran, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The intelligence assistance was considered vital in Israeli military efforts to pinpoint the exact vessel carrying the arms, which was captured in a daring commando raid earlier this month, said officials familiar with the effort.
"Our assistance was crucial," said one U.S. intelligence official.
The ship, the Karine A, was raided by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea on Jan. 3. A large cache of Iranian weapons was found, including small arms, mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives.
Many of the weapons were identified as coming from Iranian production facilities, the intelligence officials said.
According to the officials, Israel approached the CIA last month with a request for help in locating a vessel it believed was carrying arms destined for the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli intelligence at one point thought they had found the vessel in the Persian Gulf port of Dubai, but that ship was not the one later captured with the arms.
U.S. intelligence agencies, using various high-tech intelligence-gathering means, were able to identify the Karine A after it loaded the weapons near Iran's Kish Island, some 300 miles north of the major Iranian naval port of Bandar Abbas.
The discovery of the Palestinian weapons ship is a major success for U.S. military intelligence, which has sought to improve its monitoring of weapons shipments by sea since the early 1990s. In 1992, the Navy lost track of a North Korean ship, the Dae Hung Ho, as it delivered a shipment of missile parts to Iran.
The official Iranian radio, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, said last week that the weapon shipment was a "false propaganda claim" of the Israeli government.
Kish Island is a resort area about 11 miles from the Iranian coast. The Islamic government in Tehran has declared it an economic free zone.
The Israeli government has said the weapons shipment reveals new links between the Iranian government and the Palestinian Authority. Previously, Iranian government support to terrorists in the region had been limited to groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
"This shows there has been a strategic shift in the actions of the Iranian regime," said Kenneth Timmerman, a private analyst who specializes in Iranian military affairs.
"Previously, Iran had been standoffish to Arafat. Now, by delivering such a large amount of weapons, including new types of weapons, they are tilting toward Arafat in this effort to sabotage the peace process," Mr. Timmerman said in an interview.
According to the Israeli government, among the weapons found were 211 anti-tank mines, 735 hand grenades and 62 122mm Katyusha rockets, which have a range of 12 miles.
The ship also carried large numbers of AK-47 assault rifles and blocks of high-powered plastic explosive.
The weapons were packed in 80 submersible containers designed to float a few feet below the surface of the water. Officials said the plan for the weapons containers was to drop them overboard and smuggle them into the Gaza Strip from the Mediterranean.
The captain of the ship, Omar Akawi, told reporters in Israel earlier this month that he was delivering the weapons to the Palestinian Authority and was in radio contact with Abdel Mughrabi, a weapons procurement official for the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Akawi, a naval adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said he expected to receive orders canceling the arms smuggling operation after Dec. 16, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced in a speech that he was halting military operations by the Palestinians. No order was issued.
Mr. Akawi told reporters he was instructed to pick up the weapons in the Persian Gulf "near the Iranian border," according to an interview on Israeli television.
A smaller boat then arrived, and the weapons were loaded on the ship. The Karine A captain said he recognized one of the men loading the weapons as a member of the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.
The ship was seized by the Israelis in the Red Sea, about 300 miles from the Israeli port of Elat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, and taken to Elat.
Its cargo was estimated to be worth $10 million.
In an interview with The Washington Times last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell did not indicate that he was aware of the intelligence operations.
Mr. Powell said the Palestinian-Iranian arms smuggling is a "deeply disturbing problem."
"By the way, just as a former soldier, let me compliment the Israelis on a neat piece of work," said Mr. Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"It is deeply troubling to see the kinds of weapons that were being introduced into this volatile area," Mr. Powell said in the Jan. 8 interview. "And I think there is a heavy burden on Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to explain what they know about this and get to the bottom of this, because this is an escalation."
Mr. Powell said the United States had seen "some evidence and information" about the shipment and was awaiting more from a delegation of Israeli government officials who briefed U.S. policy-makers on Jan. 9.
"But this kind of action is condemnable, and I do condemn it," Mr. Powell said. "It's a new element that complicates an already complicated situation."

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