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Attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor

June 7, 2006 (by Jon Grinspan) - Today could be the twenty-fifth anniversary of a nuclear Iraq. Instead it marks the date of one of the most daring and controversial military actions in modern history.

Zoom on the Osirak kill marking on IDFAF F-16A block 10 #243 taken at the IDFAF Museum on April 26th, 2004. [Photo by Oren Rozen]

Had everything gone according to Saddam Hussein's plan, a reactor outside Baghdad would have begun quietly preparing an atomic bomb in mid-June 1981. Yet the plan was not as secret as the Iraqi dictator hoped. Late in the afternoon of June 7, eight Israeli F-16s swooped out of the darkening Baghdad sky, bombed the reactor, and raced back to Israel unscathed. The preemptive raid succeeded in destroying Iraq's nuclear hopes - and sparking international outrage at Israel's aggression.

Oddly enough, the plan for an Iraqi atomic bomb was Israeli in origin. In the 1960s France had helped Israel secretly build a reactor and approximately 100 nuclear weapons. Not surprisingly, the Jewish state's new arsenal terrified the Arab world. The Palestinian Liberation Organization published The Israeli Bomb, a shocking report on the covert construction taking place in the Israeli desert.

Ten years later The Israeli Bomb struck a chord with Saddam Hussein. Ba'athist Iraq hoped to replace Egypt as the center of Arab Nationalism and would soon launch a war against revolutionary Iran. Until this time Iraq's existing nuclear technology had been used solely to test Hussein's meals for poison. In the mid-1970s, however, he chose to alter the balance of nuclear power in the Middle East. Iraqi physicists studying abroad were recalled to Baghdad and, regardless of their fields, ordered to build an Iraqi Bomb.

Hussein also mimicked Israel's cooperation with France, offering prime minister Jacques Chirac 700 million barrels of oil in exchange for a reactor and 72 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. France was desperate for cheap gasoline in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis and agreed to Hussein's request for enough uranium to make multiple bombs the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima. French advisors and young Iraqi scientists began constructing the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad, in a compound ominously called Al-Tuwaitha (“the Truncheon”).

Israeli intelligence learned of Hussein's plans in 1977. That same year Menachem Begin, the right-wing leader of the Likud party and former head of a terrorist organization, was elected Israel's prime minister. Begin's election broke the leftist Labor party's grip on the country's politics and launched an era of aggressive interventionism. Upon learning of Iraq's nuclear plans, Begin resolved to destroy Osirak in any way possible. Israeli Mossad agents first bombed reactor parts sitting in French warehouses. Such interference cost the project $23 million dollars but ultimately did more damage to Israel's reputation than to Hussein's plans.

Sabotage in France was clearly not going to deter the Iraqi dictator. In the spring of 1981 Israeli intelligence predicted that Osirak would “go hot” in June, after which an assault could spread nuclear fallout in central Iraq and kill 100,000 people. A small nuclear blast in Tel Aviv might kill the same number of Israelis. The deadline was fast approaching; after June, Israel would be able to do little but wait until 1985, when Iraq would have its first operational bomb. The weapon might be used, as Saddam Hussein boasted, “against the Zionist enemies.” The chairman of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, Khidhir Hamza, later recalled the scientists' sense of guilt, writing “My mind's eye sometimes flickered with visions of a postnuclear Teheran or Tel Aviv: charred, smoldering holes, with hundreds of thousands of people vaporized.”

Begin decided to act, illegally. The only planes capable of making the 600-mile flight safely were state-of-the-art American-made F-16s. The jets had actually been intended for Iran but had been rerouted to Israel following the 1979 revolution. Unfortunately for Israel, they were sold for defensive use only; anything else would be against U.S. law. Nonetheless, the Israeli Air Force - already boasting the best kill-to-loss ratio in the world - began to practice for its longest-distance mission ever.

Begin pushed his cabinet to approve the plan, but some saw it as an attempt to garner support before the coming election. Shimon Peres and Ezer Weizman, the son of Israeli's founding president, loudly opposed the raid. With the help of the future prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir, Begin framed the Iraqi reactor development as a threat to Jewish survival. In a confrontational meeting, he pounded on the table and shouted: “There will be no other Holocaust in this century! Never. Never Again!” Eventually, most ministers approved a secret raid set for June.

Early in the afternoon 25 years ago today, eight first-rate pilots took off from a base in the Sinai. Among them was Ilan Ramon, who later became an astronaut and was killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster. To avoid radar detection their F-16s flew just a hundred feet above the deserts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The jets reached Osirak while Iraqi antiaircraft gunners and surface-to-air missile operators were eating dinner. They flattened the reactor's large dome and destroyed its complex machinery. At least eight people were killed, including a French advisor. The pilots then sped back home without taking a single round of antiaircraft fire. The raid was so sudden and successful that for days few believed it had actually happened.

This unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation in peacetime ignited fury around the world. The United Nations, the Soviet Union, and the Arab League all loudly condemned Israel's action. The United States was equally upset; during the early 1980s the Reagan administration saw Hussein's Iraq as a bulwark against Iran. Secretary of State Alexander Haig called Israel's strike “reckless” and demanded sanctions. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Jeanne Kirkpatrick, compared it to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The use of the “defensive” F-16s was especially troubling. The raid made a joke of U.S. military sales; having failed to sell the jets to its former Iranian allies, America watched as Israel used those same planes against a friendly regime.

Yet others were very happy about the raid. President Reagan himself proudly called it “a terrific piece of bombing!” Though his administration suspended F-16 sales to Israel, the President let them resume in September. Most of the American Jewish community was ecstatic too. Even Bob Dylan agreed, mocking the uproar against Israel in his song “Neighborhood Bully.” Dylan sang: “Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad/ The bombs were meant for him, He was supposed to feel bad.”

The short-term effects of the Osirak raid were mainly negative. Israeli foreign policy appeared belligerent, and American policy seemed weak. A dangerous precedent of preemptive strikes was set. Menachem Begin used the attack to win reelection and launch his invasion of an already battered Lebanon.

When one considers Hussein's actions throughout the 1980s and '90s, however, Israel's aggression seems to have been wise. But ultimately the Jewish State may have protected the Islamic regime in Iran more than itself. Iran and Iraq were locked in a brutal war that killed at least a million people between 1980 and '88. We can only wonder whether Saddam Hussein - perfectly willing to fight with chemical weapons, murder civilians, and bombard cities - might have used the nuclear arsenal he had hoped to build. He began his indiscriminate “War of the Cities” targeting Iranian urban centers in 1985, the same year Israeli intelligence predicted he would have had an atomic bomb. It is distinctly possible that Israel's raid, for which it received so much criticism, saved the lives of millions of Iranians four years later.

Israel's attack has obvious contemporary parallels. Today it is Iran that seems intent on gaining nuclear power. Those who hope for a similar raid will be disappointed; Iran learned from Osirak and has buried its nuclear facilities throughout its large nation. Multiple attacks would surely spark a larger war. Yet Israel's preemptive action still speaks to our modern predicament. Perhaps Begin's decision to act 25 years ago means that the world suffers no memories of “a postnuclear Teheran or Tel Aviv” today.

Additional images:

Nose detail of IDFAF F-16A #243 seen at Brno AB with the Osirak campaign markings clearly visible. [Photo by Stefaan Ellebaut]

IDFAF F-16A block 10 #243 is the plane that hit the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. It is parked at Hatzerim AB museum on the 56th Independance day of Israel. [Photo by Tsahi Ben Ami]
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