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Israel Celebrates Quarter-century Since Strike on Iraqi Nuke Facilities

June 8, 2006
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Twenty-five years ago, eight Israeli fighter pilots took off in their F-16s on a crucial and extremely dangerous mission that forever changed the Middle East. The June 7, 1981, strike against Iraq’s atomic reactor at Osirak, which many believed denied Saddam Hussein the bomb, has long been a case study in air power virtuosity.

Of late, with Western jitters building over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is also being examined as a model for a pre-emptive action to deprive a dangerous regime of doomsday weaponry.

Israel has been celebrating the 25th anniversary of Osirak by lifting some of the secrecy over the mission. The seven surviving pilots have been giving interviews, while real-time footage of the mission, captured by the planes’ onboard cameras, was publicly broadcast.

“I felt that it was the future of the State of Israel on my shoulders,” recalled Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former F-16 pilot turned military intelligence commander.

At the time, of course, there was no place for triumphalism. Israel knew that no matter what the outcome, it would be accused by the international community of brinkmanship, even warmongering.

There were also U.S. ties to consider.

Israel had received its first fleet of F-16s from Washington by chance, after a shipment destined for Iran was canceled in light of that country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. And despite the warplanes’ advanced capabilities, getting them to make the round trip to Baghdad without support required a major gamble on Israeli technical ingenuity.

Israel was also in the midst of implementing its landmark 1978 peace accord with Egypt, and knew that this could be imperiled should Cairo choose to back an aggrieved Baghdad.

But for Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, almost all risks were worth taking in order to ensure the continued survival of the Jewish state.

“We decided to act now, before it is too late,” Begin would say. “We shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal.”

Relik Shafir, who flew last in the eight-plane formation, would later confess that he expected to be killed by Iraqi ground fire, along with his wingman Ilan Ramon. As it happened, the late Ramon went on to an illustrious air force career, culminating in his appointment to become Israel’s first astronaut on the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle mission.

Any small mishap might have ended the mission. The chief of Israel’s air force at the time, David Ivry, said that one of his main concerns was that one or more of the F-16s would suffer mechanical problem as they zoomed at an ultra-low altitude from a secret base in the then-occupied Sinai Desert across Jordan and Saudi Arabia and into Iraqi territory.

Then there were the freak glitches. A Mossad agent almost blew the mission when in front of air crew servicing the F-16s, he dropped a briefcase full of Iraqi dinars that were to be given to the pilots to use for bribes should they be shot down. The formation was also spotted after takeoff by Jordan’s King Hussein as he holidayed upon a yacht in the Red Sea. Thankfully for Israel, his efforts to alert Saddam about the incursion failed.

The Osirak mission went off almost without a hitch. The reactor core was destroyed in a surgical strike that was timed for a Sunday afternoon to reduce civilian casualties. The pilots made it home to the embrace of families that they had kept in the dark about the planned operation for months.

As predicted, there were condemnations across the board, from the United States to the United Nations to the Arab League. But no serious sanctions against Israel materialized, and some insiders recounted feelings of relief and sympathy in Western halls of power.

Richard Allen, U.S. national security adviser at the time, was the first to inform President Reagan of the Osirak strike. According to Allen, Reagan was nonplused but quick to quip: “Boys will be boys!”

Bereft of his prized, French-supplied reactor, Saddam ordered a secondary, secret nuclear program to be enacted. It was uncovered by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency in 1991. Few dispute that had the Osirak strike not been carried out, U.S.-led forces would have faced off with a nuclear-armed Saddam in the first Gulf War.

Ivry, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in the late 1990s, has a satellite image of the destroyed reactor that he received as a gift from Vice President Dick Cheney. A handwritten note on the picture reads: “With thanks and appreciation. You made our job easier in Desert Storm.”

Today’s Iran, of course, is not Saddam-era Iraq. Its nuclear facilities are numerous, dispersed and fortified — a challenge that many foreign experts believe is beyond even Israel’s formidable capabilities.

Patrick Cronin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said that for Israel, “while tactically military options are not nil, they are close to nil” when it comes to Iran.

Yet while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has backed U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, like President Bush he has refused to rule out Osirak-like pre-emptive strikes.

A bluff? Anyone who knows is not saying.

But Ivry has suggested that some assessments of Israel’s current military limitations are based on the wrong assumption that the objective would be to destroy Iran’s capabilities.

“When Israel struck Osirak, the intention was never to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plans. We wanted to buy time, and we succeeded in doing that,” he told Reuters last year.

“You cannot eliminate an idea, a national will. But you can delay progress on a nuclear program with the appropriate military action.”

But surely, thanks to Osirak, Israel or its U.S. ally have lost the key element of surprise?

Ivry pointed out that the Osirak strike was not unprecedented, as Iraq’s reactor had previously come under repeated attacks from its foe Iran. The secret, it seems, is in the audaciousness of the execution.

“If and when Iran is attacked, I think I can assure you it will come as a surprise to everyone,” Ivry said.

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