Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reportedly threatened to make Tel Aviv his first target if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf, and Israel on Monday promised swift and terrible retribution for any Iraqi attack.
Also Monday, the Baghdad government recalled its ambassadors to the United States, the United Nations and some European nations for urgent consultations, diplomats said. No details about the talks were disclosed.
The developments heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf crisis three weeks before the U.N. deadline of Jan. 15 for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait or face a possible military strike.
Hussein’s newest threat against Israel came in a Spanish television interview to be aired Wednesday. The journalist who spoke with the Iraqi leader Saturday in Baghdad said Hussein told him “Tel Aviv would receive the first blow in the case of a gulf war,” whether or not Israel joins any multinational strike against Iraq.
Even before the gulf crisis, Hussein had threatened to wipe out half of Israel with chemical weapons if Israeli forces attacked any Arab nation. However, his reported comments to Spanish television would be the first time he has mentioned a specific target within Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir responded to the report by telling Israel Radio that “whoever will dare to attack us will be attacked seven times more” and that “the Israel Defense Force is on alert in anticipation of every danger.”
“He (Hussein) knows that Israel does not participate in this confrontation,” Shamir added. “He wants to drag us into this confrontation in order to give it the character of an Israeli-Arab confrontation.”
Indeed, the new threat appeared to be a fresh bid by Hussein to divide the anti-Iraq coalition, which includes some Arab nations traditionally hostile to the Jewish state.
Despite the threat, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told Israeli high school students in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, that he doubts an Iraqi attack is “very probable.”
“But of course, with that man, one cannot know. Anything can happen, " Arens said, adding that Iraq has a “very limited capability of reaching Israel with its missiles.”
The Baghdad government, meanwhile, has been holding urgent consultations on the gulf crisis with Iraq’s ambassadors to 10 Western countries, Iraqi officials said.
The Iraqi Embassy in Washington said Baghdad’s envoy to the United States, Mohammed Mashat, and its envoy to the United Nations, Abdul Amir Anbari, were among those summoned.
Iraqi envoys to a number of European nations were also recalled for talks, officials said. It was unclear how many were involved.
In Amman, Jordan, before returning to Baghdad, Anbari said his government is using the holiday season to discuss the gulf crisis in detail.
“I believe the government thought it was time to make some consultation as well as to bring our ambassadors up to date,” he said. “The reason is simply to discuss in further detail the gulf crisis and prospects of a peaceful settlement to the crisis.”
A senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization indicated in an interview published today that the PLO would side with Hussein if war broke out.
“We have coordinated our plans to fight with Iraq in one trench,” PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s chief political adviser, Hani Hassan, told the Iraqi daily newspaper Al Jumhuriya.
Other Arab leaders, however, appealed to Hussein to give up Kuwait before it is too late.
In Doha, Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd advised Hussein that “it is braver to opt for peace than for war.”
Addressing the annual meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, the king, whose nation is hosting hundreds of thousands of U.S.-led troops allied against Iraq, said Hussein would find his Persian Gulf neighbors ready for reconciliation if he leaves Kuwait.
“We wish that . . . (Hussein), who was to us a brother, friend and ally, know that the curtain is not yet drawn on the scorching war and that he . . . can spare himself and his people its horror,” Fahd said in a statement.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters in Cairo that Iraq would be the big loser if war broke out. “A very large number of Iraqi people will die,” he said.