"Graham added that a cornered Saddam was more likely to coordinate terrorist attacks against American interests with such groups and that the proximity of a war against Iraq meant 'the clock is running on our capacity to disable the terrorists who are within the United States and attack their headquarters and training camps abroad.'"
[Forward - November 22, 2002]:
Senate Intelligence Chiefs Tell Bush: Go After Hezbollah Before Saddam
Graham, Shelby: Hit Terror Camps
W.'s Syrian Dilemma
By MARC PERELMAN
Riding a renewed wave of criticism of the Bush administration's war against terrorism following the reemergence of Osama Bin Laden, two leading senators with intelligence portfolios are demanding that the United States strike Hezbollah and Hamas before going to war against Iraq.
Florida Democrat Bob Graham and Alabama Republican Richard Shelby told CNN this week that they see terrorist camps operating in the Middle East as an immediate threat that should be addressed with preemptive strikes. Graham and Shelby have both enjoyed access to intelligence briefings, putting weight behind their remarks and pressure on the administration.
Other observers say that Hezbollah is focusing its guerrilla activities in Lebanon where it has become an entrenched political force, and is unlikely to resume the international terrorist operations it conducted during the 1980s. They note that Hamas has never targeted the United States. However, recent trials and arrests of Hezbollah operatives in North Carolina and Canada, as well as a flurry of reports about the existence of Hezbollah cells around the globe, have fueled speculation that the group might join hands with Al Qaeda or Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in case of a war against Iraq.
"Against those international terrorists such as Hezbollah and Hamas, we need to be launching attacks on their headquarters and their training camps," Graham, the outgoing chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition" program. He added that the United States should send an ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar al Assad to shut down terrorist facilities in Lebanon.
Graham added that a cornered Saddam was more likely to coordinate terrorist attacks against American interests with such groups and that the proximity of a war against Iraq meant "the clock is running on our capacity to disable the terrorists who are within the United States and attack their headquarters and training camps abroad."
Graham's remarks came amid quiet diplomatic negotiations between Washington and the groups' main sponsors — Iran and Syria — to keep the Israeli-Lebanese border quiet, cooperate in tracking Al Qaeda operatives and even in preparing for a future war against Iraq.
Shelby, the Republican vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, told CNN that the United States should start military planning to take out the terrorist camps in the Middle East "before they take us out."
Some observers remained skeptical of Graham's and Shelby's claims.
"I agree that Hezbollah is a threat to regional stability and has been provocative in the north [of Israel], but so far I haven't seen anything conclusive suggesting that the group is going to strike American interests," said Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert in the Clinton administration.
Neither Shelby nor Graham could be reached for comment.
In recent months, Graham has repeatedly claimed that there is a "significant" number of terrorist cells in the United States and blasted the FBI for its failure to track them. In February, the FBI told the Senate intelligence committee in a letter that there were indeed Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad cells in the United States that could be activated.
Last month, the CIA said in a declassified report sent to the intelligence committee that Saddam, faced with the prospect of imminent demise, might supply "Islamist" terrorists with weapons of mass destruction with which to attack the United States.
The administration has repeatedly said that Saddam was more likely to hand such weapons to Al Qaeda.
One Middle East expert said the administration is aware of the threat. "Graham takes his job seriously, and he is not the only one to have Hezbollah or Hamas on his mind; there are people in the administration worrying about them, too," said Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert with the Israeli Policy Forum. "In the context of a weakened Iraq, the Shiite connection between Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran and the Shiite majority in southern Iraq has people worried."
Cohen declined to identify the administration officials looking into the issue. Although Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Hezbollah as "the A-team" of terrorists in September, the administration has been largely quiet on the subject.
Calls seeking comments to the White House and the State Department went unreturned.
Graham has been consistent in his warnings during the last six months. Back in May, he warned that Hezbollah and Hamas could launch attacks against American interests. In July, he traveled to the region and said he was distressed to hear Assad deny the existence of the training camps that American satellites had uncovered.
Last month he was one of 23 senators who voted against the congressional resolution granting broad powers to the president to wage war against Iraq because he felt it was too "timid" by not allowing Bush to attack the training camps of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Graham even introduced an amendment to give Bush the power to attack their camps, warning his colleagues that "blood will be on their hands" if they didn't support it. The amendment was rejected.
Still, observers say the administration cannot afford to go overboard in pressuring Syria, as it needs Damascus's support in the Security Council. This week Syria rebuffed Washington's demand that it shut down the Damascus offices of Islamic Jihad after the group claimed responsibility for last week's deadly attack on Israeli soldiers in Hebron.
The most pressing issue for Washington as it prepares for a war against Iraq is maintaining the relative quiet that has prevailed on the Israeli-Lebanese border during the last six months.
"It's been relatively quiet, and the feeling here is that both Hezbollah and Syria appear to be laying low waiting to see what happens in Iraq," Robert Malley, a former senior Middle East aide in the Clinton administration, told the Forward in an interview from Beirut, where he was presenting a new report on southern Lebanon by the International Crisis Group, a left-leaning think tank. "But while the conflict is apparently under control, it could quickly deteriorate."
A few weeks ago, Israel broke up a Hezbollah spy ring within its military. And Israel has warned in recent months that Hezbollah was receiving mid-range missiles from Iran and Syria.