Israel – atom bomb program part 2 (Iraq)

Last week’s article discussed how Israel  allegedly produced two nuclear bombs in  time for the Six-Day War. However, in the  end, Israel had such an astounding victory  that the bombs made no tactical difference  to the war’s outcome. However, during the  Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir and her cabinet  reportedly decided to arm about 13  nuclear bombs on the night of October 8th  after Syrian troops broke through the Golan  Heights. Jericho missiles and F-4 warplanes  were allegedly armed and readied for action  against Syrian and Egyptian targets.

This action may well have contributed to  US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s historic  agreement of October 9th to begin a  massive aerial pipeline of arms to Israel.  Israeli aircraft began collecting American  supplies that very day and giant American  C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying anti-tank  weaponry arrived in time for the decisive  battle to retake the Golan.

It is also alleged that President Nixon  declared a worldwide nuclear alert after the  Soviet Union sent a ship, carrying nuclear  arms, to Alexandria and that two nuclear  SCUD brigades in Egypt had nuclear warheads.  Israel’s nuclear program plowed onwards  and, by the mid-5750s/1990s, she may have  possessed between 100-200 nuclear  weapons, including warheads for Jericho-1  and Jericho-2 missiles, aerial nuclear bombs  and nuclear mines. In September  5739/1979, American and Soviet spy satellites  detected the bright flash of a nuclear  explosion, 26,000 feet over the Indian  Ocean, that was widely believed to be a joint  South African-Israeli nuclear test. 

Meanwhile, Israel’s nuclear monopoly  was threatened by Iraq, a giant Arab state  with which she was technically at war. Iraq  had participated in every war against Israel  since 5708/1948 and was getting close to  developing her own atom bombs. The Iraqi  program began innocently, back in  5716/1956, when the US bestowed Iraq with  a library of declassified documents from the  Manhattan Atom Bomb project of World  War II, as part of the international “Atoms  for Peace” program.

However, despite ratifying the Nuclear  Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in  5729/1969, Iraq began a secret plan to build  bombs in 5731/1971 when Khidir Hamza,  head of the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission  (IAEC), was approached by two members of  Iraq’s Baath party and requested to develop  nuclear weapons, under cover of the country’s  civilian nuclear program. Hamza’s  fifty-page plan received Saddam Hussein’s  enthusiastic approval the following year.

The core of Hamza’s plan was to get hold a  foreign reactor capable of turning out quantities  of plutonium – the radioactive component  of atomic bombs.

Although the reactor would be subject to  biannual inspections of the International  Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Saddam  was certain that ways and means would be  found to fool their polite, bungling inspectors.  France generously supplied Saddam  with two research reactors. One of them was  of a type used only by advanced nuclear  powers, and obviously acquired in order to  produce quantities of weapon-grade plutonium.  Saddam made no secret of his intent.  Just before flying to France to sign the deal  in 5735/1975, Saddam informed a leading  Beirut newspaper that “Iraq’s acquisition of  nuclear technology was the first Arab  attempt towards nuclear arming, although  the officially declared purpose of the construction  of the reactor was not nuclear  weapons.”

Iraq named the reactor Tammuz-17 in  commemoration of the Islamic date of the  Baath party’s takeover in 5728/1968 (Tammuz  is the name of one of the Muslim  months). By 5739/1979, Iraq had poured  $750 million dollars into the Tammuz-17  reactor and it was obvious that oil-rich Iraq  was not spending all this money and effort  in a search for cheap energy. It was also  clear that Israel was Iraq’s prime target. In a  5738/1978 Baghdad speech, Saddam had  declared, “The essence of the Iraqi regime’s  stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict is principled  and immovable on a total rejection of  any political solution. Settlement lies in an  all-out military struggle aimed at uprooting  Zionism from the area.”

Israel was not taking all this lying down  and is suspected of organizing a number of  attempts to slow down Iraq’s program. In  April 5739/1979, two reactor cores waiting  to be shipped from France to Iraq were  blown up by seven operatives. An Egyptian  engineer working for Iraq was assassinated  in his Paris hotel room. The office of an Italian  firm supplying plutonium processing  technology was bombed. Two other Iraqi  engineers perished under suspicious circumstances. Additionally, Iranian planes superficially  damaged the reactor in a bombing attack during September 5740/1980. Iraq’s nuclear  program proceeded regardless, and more  drastic measures were required. In  5740/1980 Israeli Chief of Staff, Rafael  Eitan, publicly declared, “If the Iraqis get  the bomb, it will be as though all the countries  in this region are hanging from a light  thread high above. Any attempt to use the  nuclear bomb will lead immediately to the  tearing of that thread and the crashing of the  states.” Israel decided that the best solution  was to bomb the reactor out of existence. 

For Israeli Premier Menachem Begin, the  timing was perfect because Israel was in the  midst of an election campaign and, if the  raid succeeded, he could confidently count  on being voted in for a second term. “This  will be my Entebbe!” he predicted.  Shimon Peres thought that diplomacy  should still be given a chance and sent Begin  a warning:  “PERSONAL – TOP SECRET… I feel  that it is my supreme civic duty to advise  you, after serious consideration and in  weighing the national interest, to desist from  this thing…”

But Peres was not in the driver’s seat.  “Operation Babylon” was a “two-minute  Entebbe style raid” against the Iraqi reactor  located nineteen miles south-east of Baghdad,  and the 1,100 km route was the longest  range air attack the Israeli Air Force had  ever attempted, at the extreme combat range  of the F-16 fighters. Twice as many planes  had to participate in the raid because extra  fuel tanks had to be carried instead of  bombs.

The jets roared off from Israel’s giant  Etzion air base, near Eilat, on a clear Sunday  afternoon on June 7th at 3:00 p.m., and set  off under strict radio silence. No would  know if the raid was a success or failure  until the planes hopefully returned four  hours later. The planes zoomed on a roundabout  route over the north Saudi Arabian  desert to avoid the Middle East’s spider web  of radar stations and, to be double-certain,  the planes avoided radar by hugging the  ground at treetop level.

At 4:00 p.m., the planes turned northeast  into Iraq and, at 5:33 p.m., the leading pilots  spotted the 60-foot reactor dome in the distance.  The eight F-15s zoomed thousands of  feet upwards to provide air cover while the  eight F-16s climbed a few hundred feet in  preparation for exquisitely accurate bombing  dives.

At 6:35 p.m. local time, the first jet’s  bombs smashed the reactor’s concrete roof  and, one after the other, with no more than  fifteen seconds between them, the remaining  seven planes reduced the reactor to scrap. In  eighty seconds, thirteen bombs had blown  away Tammuz-17’s dome and demolished  its reactor core. Every bomb scored a direct  hit within thirty feet of the center of the target  raising the mistaken theory that an electronic  homing device had been planted there  in advance. The pilots’ speed and precision  barely gave the anti-aircraft gunners a  chance to react.

Afterwards, the planes zoomed to high  altitude to preserve fuel, hoping that no hostile  fighters would intercept them on their  way home. At 7:00 p.m., the first F-16 made  it back to base and the rest of the planes  landed in different bases within the next ten  minutes.

Ironically, the pilots who mounted the  raid were mostly leftist and turned down  Begin’s subsequent invitation to come and  meet him and be photographed together.  After all, they had carried out their mission  for Israel and not for Begin’s election. Begin  was forced to go down to their base where  he was greeted by a row of the pilots’ cars,  each one sporting a Shimon Peres bumper  sticker. 

Israel confessed her culpability the day  after the raid:

“The Israeli Air Force yesterday attacked  and destroyed the Osirik nuclear reactor  which is near Baghdad… Sources of  unquestioned reliability told us that it was  intended, despite statements to the contrary,  for the production of atomic bombs. The target  for these bombs was Israel… The planning  was precise. The operation was set for  Sunday on the assumption that the 100 to  150 foreign experts who were active on the  reactor would not be there on the Christian  day of rest. This assumption proved correct.  No foreign expert was hurt.”

(This last statement turned out to be a  mistake because the foreign workers actually  took off the Moslem day of rest on Friday.  However, because the raid occurred after  working hours, only one French expert was  killed.)

Saddam was adamant that the attack  would make no difference:  “The men who have been able… to bring  Iraq’s nuclear potential up to the standards  which created this amount of rancor and blatant  aggression,” Baghdad radio announced  that same day, “make us confident that they  are also confident of continuing this trend no  matter what our enemies can achieve…”

Despite Saddam’s rhetoric and international  condemnation, the Israeli attack was a  turning point in history because Iraq’s program  never recovered. If not for the Israeli  attack, who knows how far Saddam Hussein  would have gone in attempting to fulfill his  dream of domination of the Middle East and  the total destruction of Israel?

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