25th Anniversary of Israeli Bombing of Iraq´s Nuclear Plant

Today, June 7, marks the 25th anniversary of the world's first air strike against a nuclear plant - the Israel Air Force bombing of the French-built Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq in 1981.

Hillel Fendel , | updated: 3:15 PM

The 70-megawatt uranium-powered reactor, located 18 miles south of Baghdad, was near completion at the time, but was not stocked with nuclear fuel. This meant there was no danger of a leak or contamination as a result of the bombing.

The Israeli Government explained afterwards that the reactor would have been ready, within ten weeks, to produce Hiroshima-size atomic bombs, presenting "a mortal danger to the people of Israel... Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people."

The government scheduled the attack for a Sunday, when the French workers at the site would be off duty.

To mark the anniversary, BBC interviewed former Iraqi scientist Dr. Imad Khadduri, who witnessed the Israeli bombing. He made headlines by saying that the attack led Iraq to develop its nuclear program. Khadduri admitted that there had been some "dabbling" in nuclear physics beforehand, but charged that the "political decision ordering us to make the bomb" followed the Israeli attack.

Khadduri told BBC that Iraq "managed exceedingly well in hiding the scope of its program from foreign intelligence eyes - whether it was Mossad, the CIA or MI6 - until after the 1991 war" when the U.S. attacked Iraq following the latter's invasion of Kuwait. "When the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors arrived, they finally managed to put the pieces of the program together on the ground, but only over a period of one year after that war." Iran will be able to learn from Iraq's experience in this area, Khadduri said.

BBC also spoke with strategic experts at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Yossi Alpher said he believes the attack "definitely made both Israel and the Middle East a safer place for years to come."

The Center's deputy head Ephraim Kam was more specific, saying that if Osirak had not been destroyed, Iraq would likely have had a nuclear weapon before it invaded Kuwait. Such a weapon, he said, would likely have prevented the U.S. from fighting against Iraq in 1991 or in 2003.

Many Israelis note that Iraq fired deadly Scud missiles at it during the 1991 war - a poor substitute for the bomb it would have liked to use instead.

Six F-16 jets and two F-15s took part in the mission. They were flown by Mission Commander Ze'ev Raz, Amir Nachumi, Amos Yadlin, Dubi Yaffe, Haggai Katz, Yiftach Spector, Yisrael Relik Shafir, and Ilan Ramon. Ramon later became Israel's first astronaut, and was killed in the Columbia shuttle spacecraft in 2003.
Osirak nuclear reactor after the Attack

One of the last to brief the pilots and wish them well was the late IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, known as Raful. Still in the seven-day mourning period for his son Yoram, an air force pilot who had been killed in a training accident, Raful told them, "You've all read the Bible. You know the history of our people." After mentioning Moses, Joshua's entry into the Promised Land, Kings David and Solomon, and the dispersion among the nations, Raful continued, "We've kept our identity as a people. And now, nearly 2,000 years later, we are reunited as a nation... And now, we are faced with the greatest threat in the long history of Israel - annihilation and destruction of our country with atomic bombs by a madman terrorist who cares nothing for human life. We must not allow him to achieve the ability to build the bomb that could destroy us."

The final word at that early Sunday morning meeting was had by Air Force Commander David Ivry, who said, "G-d be with you."

The Israeli attack, which was totally successful and totally destroyed the reactor, was condemned at the time by the world community, including the United States and the UN Security Council. Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had authorized the mission, despite objections by then-Opposition Leader Shimon Peres, did not go on the defensive.

"Despite all the condemnations which have been heaped on Israel for the last 24 hours," Begin announced, "Israel has nothing to apologize for. In simple logic, we decided to act now, before it is too late. We shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal.”

The United States suspended the sale of F-16s to Israel in response to the attack, but quietly canceled the suspension less than three months later.

In 1991, just a week after the U.S. invaded Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, a photograph was handed to the man who served in 1981 as head of Israel's Air Force, David Ivry. The photo showed the bombed Osirak reactor, and included a hand-written note on the bottom: "With thanks and appreciation. You made our job easier in Desert Storm." It was signed: "Dick Cheney" - the man who served at the time as U.S. Secretary of Defense, and is now the Vice President of the United States.