- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

U.S. intelligence agencies have stepped up monitoring of Syria and Israel for signs of a new military confrontation after a recent Israeli air strike inside Syria, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

Israeli military forces remain on alert but not as ready as shortly after the night raid Sept. 6 into northern Syria, said defense and security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The air strike was followed by press reports that the raid was carried out against a secret Syria-North Korea nuclear facility.

Concerns about a Syrian counterattack were prompted by statements from Damascus that the government would retaliate for what the Syrians said was a violation of its airspace by Israeli jets.

Israel also is concerned that Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and elsewhere could conduct attacks against Israel or its facilities around the world, the officials said.

The new fears of Hezbollah terrorist attacks is an indication that the military raid may have been carried out against an Iranian target, such as an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps base, or an Iranian-backed arms shipments meant for Hezbollah, the officials said. Syria’s response to the raid so far has been muted and limited to a threat to “respond.”

Senior U.S. officials are refusing to comment on the military operation that involved Israeli warplanes in a cross-border bombing strike on a site in northern Syria.

North Korea, meanwhile, canceled plans yesterday to take part in a meeting of the six-nation nuclear talks, fueling further concerns that Israeli intelligence reports about Syria-North Korea nuclear cooperation were behind the Israeli raid.

Syrian and South Korean officials denied that Syria is working with North Korea on nuclear cooperation.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that he was prepared to hold peace talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, noting, in his first public comments since the air strike, that “we want to make peace with anyone who is willing to make peace with us.”

Officials with access to intelligence reports said details of the Israeli raid were relayed to White House and intelligence officials but are being kept secret at Israel’s request.

Israel also imposed strict censorship on its press to prevent details of the raid from becoming public.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, while appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” was asked about the reported Syria-North Korea nuclear connection. He declined to comment on something that “may involve intelligence matters.”

“But all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully,” he said.

If Syria and North Korea were cooperating on nuclear weapons, “I think it would be real problem,” Mr. Gates said.

Syria is thought to have a covert nuclear research program and was a recipient of the Pakistani nuclear supplier network headed by A.Q. Khan, considered the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, according to a CIA report on arms proliferation. The report said Syria has nuclear research centers at Dayr Al Hajar and Dubaya with the potential to be used in a “weapons program.”

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