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HEIDELBERG, Germany — A battalion of Patriot missile crews has deployed to Israel from Germany as the United States continues to build up forces in the region in preparation for a possible war with Iraq.

While officials stress the deployment is part of long-planned exercises with the Israeli military, it came at a time when troops and materiel were being sent to the Middle East en masse.

“The exercise has been planned for more than a year and is part of a routine cycle to validate interoperability of Israeli and U.S. air defense systems,” said Maj. Bill Bigelow, a U.S. European Command spokesman.

Code-named Juniper Cobra, the exercise involves the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery out of Hanau, Germany. The exercise is slated to run through mid-February, said officials familiar with the deployment.

“Obviously, given the current state of affairs, they could stay much longer,” said one senior military official.

About 500 soldiers are expected to deploy from Germany in the coming days to participate in the war games, which will involve live-fire intercepts.

The troops are mostly from 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, said Bigelow, but are also augmented by a Navy cruiser and various communications and logistics troops.

The 69th ADA Brigade is part of Lt. Gen. William Wallace’s V Corps, based in Heidelberg.

The brigade is based at Giebelstadt Army Air Field in Germany and has two Patriot battalions. The 5th Battalion, 7th ADA is headquartered in Hanau, and the 6th Battalion, 52nd ADA, is based in Ansbach.

Bigelow declined to elaborate on the exercises.

The 69th was among the key units participating in V Corps’ Victory Strike war games in Poland last year.

The war games, which were built around developing possible invasion options against Iraq, included sending “live” air pictures from the Patriot’s powerful radar systems across the Atlantic to 101st Airborne Division commanders at Fort Campbell, Ky.

The 101st is among four divisions now slated to participate in a new round of war-planning exercises in Germany later this month.

Meanwhile, more Patriots units are also being dispatched to the Persian Gulf region.

Several Patriot units are expected to begin deploying from Fort Bliss, Texas — the home of the Army’s air defense command — in the coming weeks.

The Patriot has played a critical role in virtually every flare-up with Iraq over the past 12 years.

The Pentagon dispatched Patriot crews from the 69th ADA the last time there was significant tensions with Iraq in February 2001, as well as during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, during three days of air and cruise missile strikes.

The high-speed Patriot missile — originally designed to shoot down jets, but modified to intercept enemy missiles — made its combat debut during the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq began lobbing Scud missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Since then, the Israeli military has been working to improve its own missile defenses, developing the new Arrow missile system.

Financed in part by the United States, the $2 billion effort is the first weapon designed specifically to shoot down incoming missiles.

Only one Arrow battery is operational, according to reports, and if the United States does go to war with Iraq, Saddam Hussein is expected to lash out against Israel, hoping to draw the Jewish nation into the conflict and ignite anti-Israeli passions among Arabs.

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