A new report claims a regional war in the Mideast was on the brink of “exploding” into reality this week, only days after U.S. and British warplanes struck an Iraqi radar command-and-control site Feb. 16.

Mideast sources close to The DEBKAfile said on Thursday that six divisions of Iraqi troops were massed near the Syrian border and U.S. intelligence officials had “additionally picked up Iraqi preparations for launching long-range surface-to-surface missiles,” the intelligence news agency reported.

The movements, which were relayed to Israeli intelligence and military officials, were tracked by American spy satellites, the report said, prompting the Jewish state to place its forces on high alert and warn some towns in northern Israel to prepare for incoming missile attacks.

The report said U.S. intelligence estimates claimed that Iraqi missile forces would have been ready to launch at Israel by 6 p.m. local time Thursday, but Mideast sources said “a European government — probably Britain” — sent word to Iraqi intelligence that if missile launch preparations continued, “Israel would not again sit still and wait for Iraqi missiles to rain down on its towns, as it did in the 1991 Gulf War.”

DEBKAfile said Israeli air force officials were planning a pre-emptive strike against the amassed Iraqi troops and missile launch sites, using conventional munitions “and with the help of small neutron bombs.”

Nevertheless, Iraqi forces continued preparing the missiles for launch, “taking them up to one stage before [Iraqi President] Saddam’s firing order.”

On Jan. 18, WorldNetDaily reported that U.S. forces based in Europe had been placed on heightened alert on information that Iraq and other Arab forces may be planning strikes against Israel.

“When you look at all the signals coming out of Iraq, for example,” one source told WND, “they are significant. In effect, [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] is saying, ‘We’re going to bring a lot of pain to Israel,'” noting that Saddam has deployed Republican Guard divisions “50 miles south of Baghdad and two divisions near the border with Syria.”

At the time, the Pentagon confirmed that U.S. European Command forces had been placed on heightened alert status but did not confirm information provided to WND regarding planned “major military exercises” in the region.

WND asked Pentagon spokesmen to identify one of the exercises — “Juniper Cobra” — but officials refused. Within a week, other press sources began reporting the movements and the Pentagon confirmed the “Juniper Cobra” exercise, which included deploying a number of U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries in and around Israel.

One of those units consisted of an entire Alabama National Guard Patriot battery — the first time an entire Guard unit was deployed overseas in peacetime.

According to DEBKAfile, Arab sources said Syrian President Bashar Assad had reached a “strategic decision” either to allow the Iraqi divisions to march through Syrian territory en route to Israel, to give his approval to Hezbollah terrorist forces to unleash a “long-range rocket attack against northern Israel,” or both.

Palestinian sources, the Debkafile report said, have confirmed the Iraqi troop movement reports and Bashar’s decision.

Shortly after the 6 p.m. deadline, intelligence sources said the Iraqi missiles “had become stationary,” leading Israel to call off its missile alert at about 7:30 p.m. local time, the report said.

An hour before the 6 p.m. deadline, the report said, U.S. AWACS planes, along with four of their Navy counterparts — A2C Hawkeye carrier-launched AWACS — and 36 U.S. and British fighters and bombers had taken off from bases in Turkey and from U.S. carriers in the Gulf, enroute to Iraq’s western desert.

The joint U.S.-British squadrons were joined by elements of the Israeli air force, said the report. The mission was to “flatten Saddam’s surface missiles the moment [U.S. AWACS] reported them operational.”

The report said as the U.S. and British planes flew over the desert, they “ran into fierce anti-aircraft missile fire from [Iraqi] batteries emplaced north of the … oil city of Mosul,” noting that “35 missiles were fired,” and the “allied fighters blasted the Iraqi batteries in return but caused very little damage.”

Yesterday, the Pentagon confirmed that U.S. planes had attacked anti-aircraft missile sites near Mosul after receiving fire, adding that no planes were hit. However, British foreign ministry officials said no British warplanes were involved in the attack.

Besides escalating Iraqi military activity, the report said “unusual Palestinian military activity” was witnessed “in the past 24 hours.” Debkafile said its sources have learned that “a massive Palestinian terrorist attack may be programmed as the starting signal for a regional flare-up.”

“Thursday’s scare can be expected to be repeated in the coming days and weeks,” the report said. “President Bush hinted as much when he warned Saddam at his Washington news conference [Thursday] that if he developed weapons of mass destruction, there would be ‘consequences.'”

The report also confirmed elements of Pentagon reports Wednesday that many of the new Navy “smart munitions” used in the attack missed their targets.

Specifically, DEBKAfile said, “The combined U.S.-British raid … missed its essential target: a command-and-control center 20 miles north of Baghdad for the coordination and dispatch of both anti-air and ground-to-ground missiles” — an irony, since the Pentagon only said warplanes targeted radar command sites 5 miles south of Baghdad, inside the southern no-fly zone.

“The allies had intended to preempt Saddam Hussein, following intelligence of his decision to launch missile attacks on Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” said the report. “The failed air raid strengthened Saddam’s resolve. … Now, he is determined to go to war without delay, before Western allies reduce his missile-launching capability.”

During his news conference Thursday — his first since taking office — President Bush called the raids “successful,” despite reports that many, if not most, of the Navy bombs used in the raid had failed to strike intended targets.

Pentagon officials speculated that the bombs — which were only first used in combat just two years ago and are expensive — may have software glitches, because all of the bombs that missed their targets missed in the same way, by veering off to the left.

Published reports Wednesday said some Pentagon officials claim the bombs missed targets by as much as 100 yards.

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