Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Arming of Hezbollah Reveals U.S. and Israeli Blind Spots - New York Times

Arming of Hezbollah Reveals U.S. and Israeli Blind Spots - New York Times

Arming of Hezbollah Reveals U.S. and Israeli Blind Spots
By MARK MAZZETTI and THOM SHANKER

WASHINGTON, July 18 — The power and sophistication of the missile and rocket arsenal that Hezbollah has used in recent days has caught the United States and Israel off guard, and officials in both countries are just now learning the extent to which the militant group has succeeded in getting weapons from Iran and Syria.

While the Bush administration has stated that cracking down on weapons proliferation is one of its top priorities, the arming of Hezbollah shows the blind spots of American and other Western intelligence services in assessing the threat, officials from across those governments said.

American and Israeli officials said the successful attack last Friday on an Israeli naval vessel was the strongest evidence to date of direct support by Iran to Hezbollah. The attack was carried out with a sophisticated antiship cruise missile, the C-802, an Iranian-made variant of the Chinese Silkworm, an American intelligence official said.

At the same time, American and Israeli officials cautioned that they had found no evidence that Iranian operatives working in Lebanon launched the antiship missile themselves.

But neither Jerusalem nor Washington had any idea that Hezbollah had such a missile in its arsenal, the officials said, adding that the Israeli ship had not even activated its missile defense system because intelligence assessments had not identified a threat from such a radar-guided cruise missile.

They said they had also been surprised by the advances that Hezbollah had made in improving what had been crude rockets — for example, attaching cluster bombs as warheads, or filling an explosive shell with ball bearings that have devastating effect.

The Bush administration has long sought to focus attention on Iranian missile proliferation, and regularly discusses with journalists intelligence evidence of those activities. But American officials in Washington made clear this week that they were reluctant to detail Iran’s arming of Hezbollah in the current conflict.

The reason, according to officials across the government, was a desire by the Bush administration to contain the conflict to Israeli and Hezbollah forces, and not to enlarge the diplomatic tasks by making Iranian missile supplies, or even those of Syria, a central question for now.

Still, some officials in Washington admitted to being blindsided by the abilities of Hezbollah’s arsenal.

“You have to acknowledge the obvious — we’ve seen a new capability in striking the naval vessel and in the number of casualties that have been sustained from the Hezbollah missile attacks,” a Bush administration official said.

“In the past, we’d see three, four, maybe eight launches at any given time if Hezbollah was feeling feisty,” the official added. “Now we see them arriving in large clusters, and with a range and even certain accuracy we have not seen in the past.”

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