Menem's fear helps keep Argentina bombers safe

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The Independent Online
ALMOST two-and-a-half years after a car bomb wiped out the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 28 people, the closest the Argentinian investigators have come to cracking the case is producing the sallow-skinned big toe of the suicide bomber.

And more than a month after an uncannily similar bombing operation reduced the Jewish community's headquarters to rubble, with the deaths of at least 95 people, Argentina's Attorney-General has now said that he has insufficient evidence to indict a number of Iranian diplomats whom it was earlier thought were directly implicated in the blast.

Every Monday morning, outside the central Buenos Aires court building, Jewish activists hold a protest rally. They say they will keep demonstrating until those behind both operations are put behind bars. It seems lucky they are not on hunger strike.

It is not that the local investigators are short of assistance. Interviewed in his sumptuous offices in the Casa Rosada, President Carlos Menem reels off the lengthy list of foreign intelligence services that have allocated agents to assist in the probe. 'We have Mossad, CIA, FBI, Scotland Yard, and the Spanish and French intelligence services working with us,' he boasts.

Neither do they appear to be short of leads. The cultural attache at the Iranian Embassy, Mosher Rabani, is known to have been out pricing Renault vans in Buenos Aires just weeks before such a vechicle ploughed into the community headquarters building on Pasteur Street.

The 300 kgs of explosives used, it has been established, were of Argentinian manufacture - a finding that would suggest the local involvement of former or serving army officers who would have the easiest access to such materials.

Earlier this year, a former army intelligence chief, Alejandro Sucksdorf, was found to have been stockpiling explosives and other army weapons at his remote home, together with a library of anti- Semitic publications.

President Menem insists his investigators will pursue the two bombing inquiries to the bitter end, however uncomfortable the findings may be. But many observers are convinced that the President is terrified of what a truly serious investigation might uncover.

Why, they wonder, would he have appointed the courtly but hardly energetic Ricardo Levene, a Supreme Court judge well past pensionable age, to head the embassy bomb inquiry? And why, in the wake of the July blast, would he have named Andres Antonietti, who comes from the virulently anti- Semitic ranks of the Argentinian air force and has no intelligence background, to head a newly unified Security Secretariat to oversee all security and intelligence gathering?

So what does Menem have to fear? As regards the embassy bombing, there have been suggestions - some reported in the Argentinian press - that the trail could, incredibly, lead back to Menem's own family. Himself the son of Syrian-born parents, the President is now separated from his Syrian wife Zuleima.

In happier times, he had ensured that many of her relatives were provided with high government positions. At the time of the March 1992 blast, for example, her brother-in-law, Ibrahim Ali Ibrahim, was head of the Argentinian customs service - appointed by President Menem despite a complete lack of Spanish and a previous career in Syrian intelligence.

One of the few concrete findings of the embassy probe has been that the bombers paid for their rented suicide van with US dollar bills bearing stamps of Syrian money changers.

Why would Syria have wanted to strike at an Israeli target in Argentina? Well, in March 1992, President Hafez al- Assad had yet to embark on his current slow-moving path to peace with Israel, and was still widely believed to be sponsoring terrorism. And he had every reason to pick on Carlos Menem, the President of Syrian origin who had been so publicly supportive of Israel.

Even today, President Menem relates, he is reviled in Damascus and banned from entering the country. His crime: visiting Israel ahead of Syria after being elected President.

As for last month's bombing, President Menem himself initially pointed the finger at Iran, and vowed to break off diplomatic relations if incontrovertible evidence was found. But that tough talk has given way to vaguer threats of possible diplomatic expulsions.

It may be that President Menem is fearful of the spate of revenge attacks which could well follow a dramatic step like the closure of the Iranian embassy. He was jailed for five years under the military junta, and is well aware of the resentment against him among former army extremists, and their readiness to provide assistance to Middle East radicals bent on undermining his administration.

In conversation, he lists world leaders cut down before their time, taking in Lincoln, Gandhi and JFK. He seems obsessed by the threat, and paralysed by it. And in a country where the President pulls all the strings, his paralysis means the bombers of Buenos Aires can probably rest easy.

This article appeared in its original form in 'The Jerusalem Report'.

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