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By Laurie Copans
Jerusalem - A government critic said on Tuesday that Israel was aware before the war against Iraq that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, but Israel did not inform the United States.
Israel put itself on war footing before the US invasion last year, passing out gas mask kits to its citizens and then ordering them to open the kits, a step that eventually will cost millions, since components would have to be replaced.
But lawmaker Yossi Sarid, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said on Tuesday that Israeli intelligence knew beforehand that Iraq had no weapons stockpiles and misled US President George Bush.
In contrast, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party said Israel had shared its doubts with the Americans.
During the first Gulf war in 1991, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, all with conventional warheads. Last year Israel appointed a stern general, Amos Gilead, as its liaison with the population. Gilead filled the airwaves with dire warnings of possible chemical or biological attacks from Iraq.
Sarid, who represents the dovish opposition Meretz Party, said it was just a costly show - Israeli intelligence knew the threat was "very, very, very limited."
"It was known in Israel that the story that weapons of mass destruction could be activated in 45 minutes was an old wives' tale," said Sarid, regarding a claim leading up to the war.
"Israel didn't want to spoil President Bush's scenario, and it should have," Sarid said.
Israeli critics say the government of Sharon maintained the state of alert for its own political reasons, to help galvanise public opinion in favour of harsh steps against the Palestinians.
The United States and Britain have launched inquiries into intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, used by leaders of both nations as part of their justification for the invasion. So far such weapons have not been found.
Likud lawmaker Ehud Yatom said Israel told the Americans that it was not sure that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
"Israel said apparently there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but we haven't seen anything with our own eyes," Yatom said. "But the great United States didn't have to rely on Israel." Yatom had a career in Israeli security before entering the parliament last year.
Another view came from Scott Ritter, who led United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq for seven years before resigning in 1998. He told an Israeli newspaper this week that Israel knew for years that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.
"The Israeli intelligence reached this conclusion many years ago," Ritter told the Ynet Internet site, affiliated with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Despite this, the security establishment instructed citizens to open their gas masks, a move that cost Israel billions."
Ritter, an ex-Marine officer, has been a vocal critic of Bush's Iraq policies.
When Ritter met with Israeli intelligence officials in 1998, they told him that Iraq had been reduced to the number six threat down from number one four years before, he said.
"In the end, if the Israeli intelligence knew that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, so the CIA knew it and thus British intelligence too," Ritter told Ynet. - Sapa-AP