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World's first airstrike on nuclear plant

By | March 28th 2012 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300


When Iraq purchased a nuclear reactor from France in 1976, it was disguised as a peaceful project. However, the Israelis and the Iranians thought otherwise. Construction for the 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor began in 1979 at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Centre near Baghdad.

According to BBC, on June 7, 1981, the Israelis bombed the French-built nuclear plant near Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. Israel believed it was designed to make nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. And this was the world’s first air strike against a nuclear plant.

Prior to the attack, planning and training for the operation had begun even before Menachem Begin became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1977. It is claimed that Begin authorised the building of a full-scale model of the Iraqi reactor, which Israeli pilots could practice bombing. Indeed, three Israeli pilots died in accidents while training for the mission.

Planting bomb

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DEBKAfile claims that Israel had previously used other means to derail the Iraqi’s nuclear programme. In April 1979, it is claimed that Israeli agents in France allegedly planted a bomb that destroyed the reactor’s first set of core structures while they were awaiting shipment to Iraq.

And in June 1980, Israeli agents are said to have assassinated Yehia El-Mashad, an Egyptian atomic scientist working on the Iraqi nuclear programme.

According to the plan hatched to bomb the plant, the Israelis calculated the distance between Israeli military bases and the reactor, which was over 1,600km.

After having a refuelling dilemma, the Israelis eventually decided to use a squadron of heavily fuelled and heavily armed F-16As, with a group of F-15As to provide air cover and fighter support, and perform a surgical strike to eliminate the reactor site without having to refuel.

According to DEBKAfile, on July 7, 1981, on the orders of Israel’s Prime Minister Begin, eight F-15 interceptors and two F-16 fighter-bombers left Etzion Airbase and flew unchallenged in Jordanian and Saudi airspace.

Code switching

To avoid detection, it is claimed that the Israeli pilots conversed in Arabic while in the Jordanian airspace and while flying over Saudi Arabia, they pretended to be Jordanians using Jordanian radio signals and dialect. Upon reaching Iraqi airspace the planes split up, with two of the F-15’s forming close escort to the F-16 squadron and the remaining F-15s dispersing into Iraqi airspace as a diversion and ready back-up.

The F-16s began releasing the Mark 84 bombs in pairs, at five-second intervals. At least half of the 16 released bombs struck the reactor. The attack lasted two minutes.

Speaking to BBC on the 25th anniversary of the attack, Colonel Ze’ev Raz, the leader of the attack force, said the Israeli pilots radioed each other and recited the biblical verse Joshua 10:12 as they were returning to base.

The Israeli had covertly flown into Iraq and blown up the Tammuz nuclear reactor. Speaking to BBC, sources in the French atomic industry noted that the 70-megawatt uranium-powered reactor was near completion but had not been stocked with nuclear fuel so there was no danger of a leak.

The then Israeli Government explained its reasons for the attack in a statement saying: "The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing, whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose."

Interestingly then, it was the French and Italians who supplied Iraq with nuclear materials. According to BBC, the French Prime Minister between 1974-1978 Jacques Chirac had cultivated France’s special relationship with Iraq to maintain an influence in the region and boost trade links with the oil-rich nation.

The Israeli statement read: "We again call upon them to desist from this horrifying, inhuman deed. Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people."

Military target

Iraq’s Osirak reactor was part of a complex that included a second smaller reactor that was French-built and a Soviet-made test reactor already in use.

In September 1980, and with the outbreak of the Iran/Iraq war, the facility was considered a viable military target and it was partially destroyed.

Iraq once again repaired it with help from the French. It was only the Israelis who managed to bomb the site destroying the reactor totally.

Twenty-nine years later, Iraq wants Israel to pay for it. Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has his foreign ministry researching whether United Nation’s resolution 487, approved in the years after the strike, would allow Iraq to extract monetary damages from Israel.

According to the Guardian, an Iraqi parliament member said Tuesday that Prime Minister al-Maliki plans to sue Israel for damages done to his country following its destruction of the Tammuz nuclear reactor.

Al-Maliki has instructed the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad to clarify with the UN whether it would be possible to extract compensation from Israel.

An Iraqi source told the Guardian that MP Mohammad Naji said the UN Resolution 487, approved after the strike, allowed his country to sue Israel.

Al-Maliki’s appeal follows an answer received from the UN Secretariat by the government of Iraq on November 25, which says Iraq has a right to demand compensation for the damage Israel did to it with the attack on the reactor, through a neutral committee which will assess the extent of the damage," the report says.

Naji estimated that Baghdad would complete the suit very soon.

In an interview with the Iraqi al-Sabaah, he said a number of parliament members were leading the initiative and "trying to carry out international decisions on the matter".

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