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.
SADDAM JOINS THE NUCLEAR RACE
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?