DEBKAfile Exclusive Report October 16, 2011, 10:10 AM (GMT+02:00)
The United States launches a large-scale exercise over the Middle East deploying 41 giant transports of the 22nds Airlift Squadron Monday Oct. 17, the day before the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is scheduled to be released by Hamas. The US Transportation Command and its Air Forces Transportation will be testing its ability to provide a rapid strategic airlift response to major crises and contingencies.
Tuesday morning, when the Israel and Hamas prisoner exchange is due to be executed, the giant US transports will drill landings in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The aircraft will be packed with command and control elements and fighting units with full equipment.
debkafile's military sources report that during this critical week, the exercise ending Friday, Oct. 21 will keep an American air fleet in Middle East skies ready to land at any moment for any contingency. The Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi armies are on a high state of preparedness.
In parallel, The USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier is on its way from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Last Tuesday Oct. 11, as the US officials accused the Iranian government of directing a plot to assassination the Saudi ambassador to Washington, the Stennis was nearing the Red Sea.
Aboard was the Chief of US Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert who was assigned to the operation in this arena shortly after taking up his appointment.
The missions of the Stennis Battle Group, consisting of an additional seven warships, most of them destroyers and frigates, as well as Air Wing CVW-9, are to provide ground troops with combat support and strike land and sea targets. It is also able to sow mines over large areas around coastal regions and on the high sea.
Sunday, Oct. 16, US intelligence sources warned that the operation for the Israeli soldier's recovery from Hamas captivity (paid for by 1,027 jailed Palestinian terrorists) could touch off a spate of terrorist attacks in the region, most likely aimed at US embassies and Israel targets in and outside the country.
A senior US source noted that Iran, Hizballah and Syria might try and disrupt the exchange while it is in progress.
Tehran was furious with Washington for fingering Gholam Shakouri as one of the masterminds of the foiled assassination attempt. Shakouri is Deputy Chief of the Revolutionary Guards' Al Qods Brigades.
Iran, Syria and Hizballah all, furthermore, own an interest in thwarting the transfer of Hamas' political headquarters from Damascus to Cairo which was assured in a secret provision of the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas that was brokered by the US and Egypt.
Oct. 12, the day after the Shalit deal came to light, debkafile's military sources first drew attention to the danger of the three allies activating their undercover agents in the Gaza Strip to stymie the exchange.
On Oct. 14, the same warning was issued by the German spy agency's director Erns Uhrlau.
Sunday, circles in the IDF and Israel Defense Ministry voiced concern about the difficulties still to be overcome before Tuesday arrives. And indeed, that morning, Cairo sources reported hitches in finalizing the transfer arrangements which the prime minister's emissary David Maidan is managing for the Israeli side in Cairo. Those sources reported that Hamas representatives had raised fresh demands over and above the provisions of the prisoner swap accord they signed last week. They sought now to add more Palestinian female prisoners to the 27 agreed; they also wanted to delay the deportation of 40 hard-core terrorists to host countries and demanded that they stay in Egypt before their transfer.
Western sources report that Hamas hast yet to ask any foreign country to receive them.