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Ninety Seconds Over Iraq

Eliezer Shulman

The bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor thirty years ago last week altered the balance of terror in the Middle East for years to come. After three decades, with all the secrets out, what actually happened during those fateful, miraculous three hours between takeoff and touchdown – and in the previous days and weeks that led up to the controversial plan? And with the present Iranian nuclear threat on the horizon, does June 7, 1981 look any different today?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

“The alternative is our destruction,” then-IDF Chief of Staff Raful Eitan briefed the pilots as they were about to set off on a mission that would change the face of pre-emptive warfare – if they would come back alive. Thirty years ago last week, Israeli F-16s flew under Iraqi radar and in less than a minute and a half, bombed the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad. Just three hours after takeoff from Etzion air force base in the south, all the pilots were safely home.

“I believe that the most difficult part of the operation was obtaining approval for it,” recalls Aviam Sela, who was then director of the IDF Department of Operations. Three decades later, with all the secrets out, what actually happened during those fateful, miraculous hours – and in the previous days and weeks that led up to the controversial plan? 


Conference in the Corridor

The decision to launch Operation Opera was made only once there was no doubt about Iraq’s intent to create nuclear weapons. But time was of essence. Israeli intelligence reported that by September 1981 the reactor would go “hot” and damaging it would endanger the surrounding population. Elections for the tenth Knesset were scheduled to take place at the end of June, and the polls indicated the possibility of a complete turnaround that would restore the Alignment (today’s Labor party) to power. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was convinced that his rival, Shimon Peres, would not carry out his government’s decision to destroy the Iraqi reactor, and indeed, Peres made two attempts to prevent the bombing of the reactor — a month before in May 1981, and on the very day of the bombing itself.

Bombing the reactor was the result of the longest decision-making process the Israeli government had ever experienced. Begin inherited the dilemma from his predecessor, Yitzchak Rabin, when he became prime minister in 1977. The protocols and documents from that era are still extant, and they attest to an unavoidable last-ditch effort, through diplomatic channels and through the Mossad, to control Iraq’s nuclear program which was clearly focused on much more than peaceful scientific research. Saddam Hussein had already announced that nuclear weapons would insure Israel’s destruction, stating, “The struggle against Israel will be long and difficult, and during its course, it is possible that Israel may even try to utilize atomic bombs against the Arabs. Therefore, the Arabs must prepare the necessary weapons to be victorious.”

The Israelis had been monitoring the joint nuclear program established between Iraq and Italy since 1979. At the end of that year, the bulk of Iraq’s energies were directed toward the acquisition of an Italian reactor with a high capacity for the production of plutonium for military purposes, which resulted in a marked elevation in the power of the existing French-made reactor.  

The State of Israel tensely followed Iraq’s activities as it went about acquiring the necessary ingredients for nuclear activity, doubts that Iraq’s intent to use the reactor for civilian purposes boosted by intelligence reports of Iraq’s efforts to obtain fissile material. The implication for the State of Israel was clear: a tangible threat to its very existence.

Recently discovered documents have revealed that Israel’s intelligence services began tracking Iraq’s nuclear development as early as 1959, when it signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union. Following that agreement, a nuclear reactor was established to the southeast of Baghdad, at a distance of ten kilometers from the city. Sixteen years later, Iraq expanded its interest in nuclear development, this time with the assistance of France. France provided Iraq with a reactor for research purposes, which was considered far more advanced than similar facilities intended for research at the time. The reactor consisted of two buildings: Tammuz 1, the main building where uranium was produced, and Tammuz 2.

For Begin, who had made the Iraqi nuclear reactor a primary focus, the decision put him at loggerheads with his inner security apparatus. Yehoshua Saguy, the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, and Yitzchak Hofi, the director of the Mossad, were opposed to the strike, but IAF commander David Ivry Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan strongly supported it.

The Air Force did not wait for the final decision; Aircraft squadrons had already begun conducting long-distance practice flights in which they had to refuel in midair, then strike at targets. As soon as the decision was made that the destruction of Tammuz 1 would be the sole responsibility of the Air Force, they began making the final plans and preparations to select the optimal way to carry out the operation.


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