Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday terrorist bases in Lebanon are training some of the foreign fighters who are moving into Iraq to kill American troops.
In an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. Mofaz also said Israel’s October bombing of an Islamic Jihad terror camp near the Syrian capital of Damascus included a jet fighter buzzing near one of President Bashar Assad’s palaces. The daring low-level mission was meant as a signal to Mr. Assad that more punishing attacks would come unless Damascus stops sponsoring attacks on Israel from Syria-dominated Lebanon.
“I believe Bashar Assad is a very strange leader,” Mr. Mofaz said of the son of the late, longtime Ba’athist leader of Syria, Hafez Assad. “He has very strange behavior.”
On foreign fighters who are organizing suicide attacks in Iraq, Mr. Mofaz said his intelligence shows that some are trained by Hezbollah and other terror groups in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite terror militia funded by Iran and supported by Mr. Assad.
“We do have information that Hezbollah members, al Qaeda members and other terrorist groups from Syria are crossing into Iraq, and they are part of the resistance against the U.S. forces,” the defense minister said.
Asked whether Hezbollah is training recruits to enter Iraq, Mr. Mofaz said, “They train them to be terrorists. To what directions [they are] sending them is a different question. Part of them, I believe, are going to Iraq.”
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said this week he thinks about 200 foreign fighters are now in the country in an alliance with Saddam Hussein loyalists attacking American soldiers. The Pentagon says that another 200 foreign insurgents are in custody and that scores have been killed.
Washington repeatedly has warned Syria not to encourage the influx from its borders. The U.S. and pro-coalition Iraqis have stepped up patrols along the porous desert boundary and turned many foreigners back into Syria.
Mr. Mofaz, a retired general who served as Israel’s chief of general staff, was tapped by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a year ago to join his Cabinet. Mr. Mofaz, a paratrooper and war hero who attended Command and Staff College at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, sat down for a wide-ranging interview with The Times in his hotel room in Washington.
He arrived for three days of talks, beginning Monday, with senior Bush officials. They included Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Mr. Mofaz said he discussed with Mr. Rumsfeld maintaining a “qualitative edge” militarily, but declined to give specifics in the interview. Washington is Israel’s No. 1 foreign benefactor, with $3 billion in defense and economic aid annually.
“We understand each other by the eyes,” Mr. Mofaz said, pointing to his own eyes to emphasize that the two allies can communicate with few words.
“We understand very, very quickly the situation and what should be done,” said the defense minister, who is waging war against suicide bombers dispatched from the occupied Palestinian territories to kill Israeli civilians.
It was one of those attacks that provoked Israel to bomb the target 12 miles from Damascus. It came after Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian group in Lebanon, claimed credit for a female suicide bomber who killed 19 Israelis in a restaurant in Haifa.
Mr. Mofaz said intelligence showed that the attack was ordered by Islamic Jihad headquarters in Damascus. He said he thinks Mr. Assad got the message sent by the Israeli jet fighters.
“We know that Bashar Assad was very confused after this attack, and he was starting to understand we do not accept such events in Israel, especially when the order is coming from Damascus,” Mr. Mofaz said.
In 1981, Israel gave a demonstration of what would become President Bush’s policy of pre-emption in the global war on terrorism. Israel F-16s bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor before it could go on line and produce nuclear bomb-making material.
Today, Israel is facing a similar problem. Iran, ruled by Islamic hard-liners, is constructing a nuclear reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf that could help it make the bomb.
Mr. Mofaz was asked whether pre-emption was again an option. He said “at this moment” Israel will wait to see whether diplomacy and international inspectors solve the problem.
“Speaking about other measures, it is too early to speak about them,” said the Iranian-born Mr. Mofaz, who immigrated to Israel in 1957. “I hope that the inspection in Iran will delay or prevent or even stop the Iranian nuclear program. But knowing the Iranians and the extreme regime in Iran, I believe that they will maneuver in a way to buy time.”
Asked to respond to a report in The Times on Oct. 22 that Pakistan has agreed to supply nuclear-weapon know-how to Saudi Arabia in exchange for cheap oil, Mr. Mofaz said, “I believe that there are some other intelligence that has more information about this than our intelligence. … This is not our priority for the intelligence in Israel.”