WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is weighing an Israel proposal for a joint operation in Iraq's western desert to disarm Iraqi missiles before they could be launched against Israel.
If successful, the operation might not only protect Israeli civilians from an Iraqi attack like the one they weathered in the 1991 Persian Gulf War but eliminate the troublesome prospect of an Israeli retaliatory attack on Iraq.
Under the proposal, which would involve American special forces troops, Israel would furnish the United States with intelligence about the sites and how to disarm them early in the conflict.
The idea was presented during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's talks in Washington this week with President Bush and senior White House, Pentagon and State Department officials.
Afterward, both sides said Sharon had received assurances the United States would make a maximum effort to reduce any threat to Israel posed by Iraq.
The Israeli plan was not announced, but an account was provided to The Associated Press on Friday by a U.S. official on condition of anonymity.
Israel yielded to a request from then-President George H.W. Bush in the 1991 war to hold its fire even though 39 Iraqi Scud missiles struck Israeli territory. The president did not want to risk losing Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and other Arab nations that joined his war coalition to reverse Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.
This time, however, Sharon has declared Israel "will take the proper steps to defend its citizens" if Iraq launches its missiles against the Jewish state.
While there are fewer Arab nations lined up with the United States than a decade ago, there still would be a risk of defection if Israel were to attack Iraq.
On Wednesday, with Sharon at his side in the Oval Office, Bush endorsed Israel's right to self-defense. Still, the prospect of Israel attacking Iraq could hamper U.S. war preparations.
Sharon was not given a response to the special forces proposal during his three-day visit, and it is under consideration, the U.S. official said.
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