United Press International
June 14, 1981
By BROOKE W. KROEGER
Sunday, June 7 (UPI) ” Jacques Rimbaud sat on a caf” terrace in Tawaitha, Iraq, enjoying the late summer afternoon, his eyes casually turned to the dome-shaped nuclear complex a 3-minute jog away.
Rimbaud, like most of the 150 other French and Italian technicians who work at the site 9 miles (16km) south of teeming Baghdad, had the day off.
In Jerusalem, 600 miles (1000km) west, a small convoy of government sedans pulled up to the tree-shaded tawny-stone residence of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, his 15 cabinet ministers responding to an urgent summons.
At 5 p.m., most of the incredulous ministers learned for the first time Israeli fighter-bombers were well into a 3-hour indirectly routed mission to Iraq to carry out the spectacular 2-minute bombardment Rimbaud would witness 30 minutes later.
“Two of them made a pass over the plant to check defenses, then the other two followed, dropping four bombs,” Rimbaud said on his return to Paris.
Washington said eight single-engine U.S.-build F-16 fighters, camouflaged by Israel in earth, sand and blue-green, dropped 1-ton “dumb bombs” on the reactor.
High overhead, six more powerful, twin-engine blue-gray F-15s flew cover against Iraqi interceptors, the Israelis said the specially equipped planes included other models but did not identify them.
The pilots refueled in flight, traveling a route that took them through hostile Saudi Arabian airspace posing as Jordanians by speaking Arabic, U.S. sources said.
The four U.S. AWAC surveillance craft based in Saudi Arabia ” “a patrol too far away in the Persian Gulf ” ” failed to detect the Israeli advance, U.S. officials said.
Watching from the terrace, Rimbaud said after the bombing the planes swooped past again, probably to take photographs. He rushed to the site.
“The precision of the attack was stupefying,” he said. “The atomic reactor is unreachable and the anti-radiation shield had disappeared. The Israelis chose their hour perfectly to avoid maximum losses of human life.”
Not more than three people, one a French technician, were killed, the Israelis said.
Built underground 13 feet (4km) beneath the colossal structure, Begin disclosed later, was a heavily fortified facility where the Iraqis intended to reprocess the plutonium produced by the reactor to build the doomsday weapons they intended to unleash on Israel.
“As they flew over the last time the Stalin organs (multiple rocket launchers) opened up for 15 minutes. There were tracer bullets and anti-aircraft missiles fired too,” Rimbaud said.
To rebuild the Iraqi reactor, the construction worker said, “you will have to start by destroying everything that remains.”
Almost 24 hours passed before the Israeli public ” enjoying the Shavuoth national holiday ” learned that their air force had wiped out a nuclear reactor with atomic bomb potential and, with stupefying accuracy, intentionally left a nearby research reactor unscathed.
Israelis were jubilant. Their exquisite military machine again had shown its consummate skill. A perceived threat to their national existence had been set back three years at least.
The rest of a stunned world was quick and unanimous with biting condemnation, many, even among Israel’s few friends, accused her of an unconscionable breach of international law.
Yet even U.S. officials, deploring the action and charging illegal use of American-supplied warplanes, could not help ut admire its technical precision. The Defense Department spokesman said it marked a “new dimension” in Israeli combat activity in the region.
Begin, his Army Chief of Staff, intelligence chief and Air Force Commander, disclosed few operational details of the world’s first pre-emptive strike against an atomic reactor.
The planning took months, they said, at least since October, the hand-picked pilots trained repeatedly on models to ensure their bombs would strike the reactor’s most vulnerable parts.
Nevertheless, “obstacles and various considerations” forced postponement of the operation several times.
Though the bombs were standard, the pilots employed a new technique to carry out the attack, based on “operational and professional excellence,” having to overcome such problems as the distance from home, attacking such a “hardened” target and eluding the sophisticated air defenses around the site.
The only aspect of the mission to lack sensation was the pilot debriefing, as Air Force Commander David Ivri described it:
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For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. March 30: TBA April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.