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Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel's Secret Campaign That Denied Saddam the Bomb

Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel's Secret Campaign That Denied Saddam the Bomb

4.5 8
by Rodger W. Claire

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From the earliest days of his dictatorship, Saddam Hussein had vowed to destroy Israel. So, when France sold Iraq a top-of-the-line nuclear reactor in 1975, the Israelis were justifiably concerned—especially when they discovered that Iraqi scientists had already formulated a secret program to extract weapon-grade plutonium from the reactor, a first critical


From the earliest days of his dictatorship, Saddam Hussein had vowed to destroy Israel. So, when France sold Iraq a top-of-the-line nuclear reactor in 1975, the Israelis were justifiably concerned—especially when they discovered that Iraqi scientists had already formulated a secret program to extract weapon-grade plutonium from the reactor, a first critical step in creating an atomic bomb. The reactor formed the heart of a huge nuclear plant situated twelve miles from Baghdad, 1,100 kilometers from Tel Aviv. By 1981, the reactor was on the verge of becoming "hot," and Israeli Prime Minister Begin knew he would have to confront its deadly potential. He turned to Israeli Air Force commander General David Ivry to secretly plan a daring surgical air strike on the reactor—a never-before contemplated mission that would prove to be one of the most remarkable military operations of all time.

Written with the full and exclusive cooperation of the Israeli Air Force high command, General Ivry (ret.), and all of the eight mission pilots (including Ilan Ramon, who became Israel's first astronaut and tragically perished in the shuttle Columbia disaster), Raid On the Sun tells the extraordinary story of how Israel plotted the unthinkable: defying its U.S. and European allies to eliminate Iraq's nuclear threat. In the tradition of Black Hawk Down, journalist Rodger Claire re-creates a gripping tale of personal sacrifice and survival, of young pilots who trained in America on the then-new, radically sophisticated F-16 fighter-bombers, then faced a nearly insurmountable challenge: how to fly the 1,000-plus-kilometer mission to Baghdad and back on one tank offuel; he recounts Israeli intelligence's incredible "black ops" to sabotage construction on the French reactor and eliminate Iraqi nuclear scientists; and he gives reader a pilot's-eye view of the action on June 7, 1981, when the planes roared off a runway on the Sinai Peninsula for the first successful destruction of a nuclear reactor in history.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Long before Saddam Hussein became a household name and the alleged presence of "weapons of mass destruction" became the center of a national debate, we now know with certainty that the former Iraqi dictator was perilously close to manufacturing nuclear weapons as far back as the early 1980s. If it wasn't for the bold and, at the time, controversial 1981 military strike by the Israeli air force on a nuclear reactor outside Baghdad, the balance of power in the Middle East might look significantly different than it does today.

Claire was the first journalist to be given exclusive access to the classified materials and Israeli military personnel involved in the raid on the al-Tuwaitha nuclear complex, and his frightening re-creation of the political and military climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s makes for compelling reading. But Claire's greatest achievement is his ability to bring the reader into the lives of the eight Israeli pilots as they train for, and ultimately, accomplish, their top-secret mission, one whose ramifications continue to be felt today. No less thrilling a story than Black Hawk Down and the Discover Award–winning Ghost Soldiers, Raid on the Sun is an important military chronicle and one hell of a ride. (Summer 2004 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
This gripping account of Operation Babylon, the Israelis' 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, is the first to draw on planners' and pilots' own memories. The raid was planned to follow a long campaign of espionage, sabotage and outright assassination by the Mossad, which had failed to prevent the French-built reactor from being about ready to produce weapons-grade plutonium in the summer of 1981. Then the Israeli air force, taking its new F-16s on their first combat mission and one far beyond their designed performance, struck, obliterating the reactor with no losses, few misses and only one civilian casualty. Tactics, technology and weapons are all presented in a clear manner that does not slow the pace. L.A.-based journalist Claire's group portrait of the eight superlatively skilled and trained pilots includes Zeev Raz, the squadron leader and now a general; the ace, Iftach Spector, who missed his target because he suffered a blackout induced by the flu; and Ilan Ramon, who became Israel's first astronaut and was lost on the Columbia. The final result reads like a techno-thriller that is difficult to put down once the mission gets airborne. (On sale Apr. 13) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Lack of good intelligence-gathering sources has plagued the United States for decades-long before the evident disappearance of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction despite the use of all our technology. This was not the case in 1981, when the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq's first nuclear reactor. Iraq had purchased its nuclear reactor from France in 1975 and had scientists at work on extracting plutonium to develop an atomic weapons program. Claire, the first journalist granted access to classified documents and interviews with strike participants, details how the Israeli government obtained high-resolution satellite photographs of the site from the United States, adapted newly acquired F-16 fighters so that they could make the flight without refueling, and secretly trained pilots for the mission. Claire breathes life into this largely forgotten event, and his sensitivity to the human element of the story-especially the ability of the Israelis to obtain human intelligence in planning their response-is striking. Extremely well written, this is highly recommended for all libraries.-Charles M. Minyard, U.S. Army, Blountstown, FL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Weapons of mass destruction? Look for them in the rubble of Iraq's al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility, destroyed by Israeli flyers 23 years ago. After attaining power, writes Los Angeles-based journalist and screenwriter Claire, Saddam Hussein set about making Iraq a nuclear power. But early on, "for all Hussein's obsession with control, it was clear that Iraq had been taken for a ride by the superpowers." The Soviets, for instance, sold Hussein a leaky reactor in the early 1960s, for which the Soviets charged by the ton and layered on all kinds of useless and ancient hardware. Hussein had his revenge: he ordered his scientists to figure out how to develop weapons-grade materials from the reactor, then expelled the Soviets in 1972 and stopped payment. Claire marvels at the ingenuity of those scientists, among them Khidir Hamza, who worried about "his part in enabling Saddam's ambitious plans to become a nuclear state" but still figured that the achievement of building the Arab world's first nuclear weapon would look good on his resume. Enter France, which sold Hussein a better reactor and helped speed the process along. Enter Israel, which had no intention of sharing nuclear-power status with a hostile neighbor; it launched a daring air raid on Iraq that involved crossing over hundreds of miles of desert only a hundred or so feet above the ground. The pilots, among them Israeli's first astronaut, passed directly above Jordanian King Hussein's yacht; fortunately, he didn't pick up the phone to call Baghdad, and the raid went on as planned, destroying the Iraqi nuclear plant with letter-perfect precision and making the French technicians there very glum indeed-as well as displeasing US Secretaryof State Alexander Haig, who called the raid "reckless" and briefly suspended arms sales to Israel. Drawing on interviews with the Israeli pilots involved, Claire's well-paced account is of interest to aerial-warfare buffs, and a useful if minor footnote to the war against Hussein. Agent: David Halpern/Robbins Agency
From the Publisher
Advance Praise for Raid on the Sun

“Rodger Claire handles a complex story with ease and assurance. Infused with an understanding of the pilots and their historical mission, RAID ON THE SUN illustrates how what they achieved for Israel was as vital as that earlier flight of the Enola Gay to Hiroshima to end World War Two. Claire has created a patient, scrupulous story that still unfolds with the pace and verve of a thriller.  Don’t wait for the movie of the book.  Buy it now.” —Gordon Thomas, author of Gideon’s Spies: Mossad’s Secret Warriors

“RAID ON THE SUN is an extraordinary look into the most secret, and perhaps the finest, air force on the planet. It is also a blistering indictment of the international arms industry that sell modern weapons to anyone with money. RAID ON THE SUN is required reading for everyone in the age of terror.” —Stephen Coonts, author of Flight of the Intruder

“A stunning eye-opener, shocking you with the realization of the enormous service the Israeli Air Force rendered the free world with its 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facility. Claire went right to the source—the Israeli pilots who flew the mission—to tell in colorful detail the full story of this historic strike.” —Walter Boyne, author of Operation Iraqi Freedom: What Went Right, What Went Wrong and Why

Product Details

Broadway Books
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Read an Excerpt


Avi, my driver, had gone suddenly ashen. His eyes, usually mischievously bright, were hard and furtive.

"This is no good," he said.

We had stopped at a turnout on the summit of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, just across from the Frank Sinatra Student Center, so I could take in the dramatic view of the Old City, the shiny golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock sparkling among the whitewashed turrets and buildings below. A dusty, beat-up van had Pulled in behind us and several young Arab teens jumped out. Avi immediately grew tense. "We should go!" he said again. "This is no good."

"Come on," I said playfully, trying to get a rise out of him.

But Avi was not biting.

"No good," he said.

We climbed into his taxi, and as we sped off, I looked out the back window. Half a dozen Palestinian youths were standing on the asphalt, watching us leave. Avi's reaction -- or overreaction, I thought -- depressed me. It showed how deeply the distrust and fear between Israelis and Palestinians had burrowed as the intifada dragged into its second year the summer of 2002. For two weeks Avi had been chaperoning me up and down Israel in his taxi as I interviewed the Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilots who took part in the infamous bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. This day we still had to drive to a remote village above Ramat Hod Sharon, north of Tel Aviv, and Avi was nervous about taking the main road that cut through "the Territories," the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, now flooded with Israeli army troops trying to stop the infiltration of suicide bombers across the Green Line. We ended up taking the long way around, adding another half hour to the drive. I thought Avi was being paranoid.

A week later a Palestinian boy exploded a remote-control bomb during lunchtime inside the very same Frank Sinatra Center, killing seven students, including five Americans, and injuring scores of others. A week after that an Israeli driver and his wife were shot to death on the "shortcut" along the West Bank that Avi had refused to take.

By then, however, I was back home, safe and sound in seaside Santa Monica, California, which, with the exception of dozens of northern Italian restaurants instead of kebab grills and the absence of the occasional suicide bomber, is very much like Tel Aviv. But I had brought something home with me, a valuable lesson that would help me in the writing of this book and that no amount of interviews and research could ever teach: what it is like to live constantly at risk.

Like most Americans, I first learned of Israel's attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor through newspaper accounts. At the time, June 1981, the attack seemed rather provocative, even "reckless," to use the term employed by Secretary of State Alexander Haig -- especially given the simmering tensions of the Middle East and the delicate Egypt-Israeli truce in the wake of Camp David. Iraq was one of those faraway Arab countries that seemed vaguely hostile, like Yemen or Syria, but one that in recent years had become an increasingly important U.S. trading partner in the region. But it remained relatively unknown. Next-door neighbor Iran and the ayatollah dominated the evening news back then. Few people had even heard of Saddam Hussein, let alone his weapons of mass destruction.

It wasn't until some four years later, when I was working as an editor at Los Angeles magazine, that I began to understand the enormous consequences of the Israeli air raid on the nuclear complex in al-Tuwaitha outside of Baghdad. It came one day after a contact in Southern California's then-burgeoning defense industry, who had been briefed on the classified raid, related to me -- off the record -- the inside story of the mission: that Saddam Hussein had a secret atomic-weapons program and planned to use the French-built Osirak reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium; that the targeting of the reactor by the Israeli pilots was one of the most accurate bombing missions in modern warfare; that the F-16s the Israelis flew were somehow made to fly far beyond the envelope of their design specs; and that the pilots flew six hundred miles no more than a hundred feet off the ground.

I thought at the time, Geez, what a great book that would make! Except for one problem: the mission and even the names of the pilots in the raid had all been put under wraps by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). So it remained until June 2001, when I spotted in the Los Angeles Times a short interview with Israel's ambassador to the United States, Gen. David Ivry, the IAF commander who had originally planned the raid on Osirak exactly twenty years earlier. Guessing that Israel might finally be more inclined to open up about the mission -- given the perception of Saddam Hussein in the years since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the discovery of extensive biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons in Iraq, and Hussein's refusal in 1998 to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into his country -- I sent a letter to the ambassador to request an interview.

By the first week in September 2001, I was meeting with Ambassador Ivry on the second floor of Israel's striking mansion compound, situated just down the street from the vacant-looking Ethiopian embassy along the mini-Embassy Row in Washington's leafy, redbrick Van Ness district. We talked all morning and again all the next morning. By the time I left, I had a rundown of the entire history of the action. And, thanks to the embassy's military attaché, Brig. Gen. Rani Falk -- who, in a remarkable piece of luck, turned out to be one of the original group of pilots who had trained for the secret bombing attack -- I had the name and telephone number of the squadron leader, Zeev Raz. I also had General Falk's assurance that, depending on the individual decision of each pilot, I could meet with every member of the team -- in Israel. I would be the only journalist in twenty years to learn the names of and meet face-to-face with all eight Israeli pilots who had flown to Baghdad in 1981.

Excited and exhilarated, I returned to my Washington, D.C., hotel room to make plans to fly home early. My return ticket to Los Angeles International Airport was booked for Tuesday morning. That was four days away, and I had already wrapped up my business. But as it turned out, my round-trip ticket on American Airlines from Dulles International to L.A. could not be changed. I had purchased a specially discounted seat, and as part of the agreement I had to stay in Washington through the weekend -- obviously to subsidize the hotel industry. The earliest I could book a flight back to Los Angeles was Flight 77, 9:00 a.m., Monday, September 10, 2001. I booked it and had a wonderful return trip home -- the flight attendant not only gave me free earphones to watch the in-flight movie but also an extra cookie with lunch.

The following morning I awoke in Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m., still on East Coast time. I turned on one of the early-morning talk shows while my youngest daughter dressed for her second day as a freshman in high school. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the broadcast had cut away to a special breaking story: on the screen I saw a distant shot of what looked like a small plane, maybe a Learjet, crashing into the steel-and-glass side of one of the Twin Towers in New York City. An hour later, to the disbelief of all of America, it was clear what had happened. Next came reports of the hijacked Flight 77 out of Dulles, which had circled for an hour before slamming into the Pentagon, killing all aboard -- including, I realized with horror, the flight crew I had flown with the day before, including my wonderfully generous attendant. It was chilling to know I could have easily been on that flight.

The world, at least the world of Americans, had changed immutably within hours. And so too had the world of the book I was planning to write about the Israeli raid on Osirak. No longer was my proposed book simply a great military tale. Given the increasing malignancy of Islamic fanaticism, the war on terror, and, finally, the annunciation of the so-called Bush Doctrine, which held that the United States was justified in attacking peremptorily any enemy it considered a threat, without warning, anywhere in the world, the Israeli raid in 1981 became overnight not only relevant but perhaps a blueprint for future U.S. actions.

By the time I landed in Israel in the summer of 2002, all eight pilots who had flown the bombing mission to Osirak had agreed to talk to me. For the first time, the pilots told a reporter their personal stories of how they entered the air force, how they were chosen and trained, how it felt to fly into what IDF intelligence had characterized as a "hornet's next of AAA and SAM batteries," in which at least a quarter of the pilots were expected to be lost. Gen. Amos Yadlin even showed me actual video footage of the air raid taken from the nose cameras of the F-16s. It looked like being caught in the middle of a Fourth of July fireworks display, with the sound of exploding AAA (antiaircraft artillery) and tracers drowned out by the increasingly frenetic radio chatter coming from panicked antiaircraft gunners below. I could hear a pilot's rhythmic breathing suddenly quicken over the radio as his plane nosed down into the chalky streaks of missile contrails and hot tracer bullets.

As it turned out, the eighth pilot, Ilan Ramon, was back in Houston, Texas, waiting to board the next Columbia shuttle as Israel's first astronaut. I spoke to Ilan that summer, and we agreed to get together for a more extensive follow-up interview after he returned from the NASA shuttle's science mission the following February. Tragically, we never kept that meeting. As I watched in horror, Ramon perished when Columbia broke up over Texas on February 1, just minutes from completing its historic mission. The youngest and maybe the most beloved among the Osirak pilots, Ramon was still full of boyish energy and a self-deprecating warmth. What he was most concerned about regarding our interview was not that he be given credit for his part in the Osirak raid, but that the release of his name might expose his family to danger from Saddam Hussein. His extensive travel and exposure abroad as Israel's first astronaut would make him an easy target for Iraq's murderous Mukhabarat security agents. If the Iraqi dictator were crazy enough to attempt to assassinate President George H. Bush, he was easily mad enough to want to liquidate one of the men responsible for ending his nuclear dreams.

Indeed, the constant dread of attack by Saddam Hussein that so colored Israel's wrenching decision to take out his nuclear reactor twenty years earlier was still palpable in all the pilots I met. It was one of the reasons why the IDF insisted that the pilots' names remain classified for two decades. Many of the team had gone on to second careers in electronics or Israel's defense industry and traveled abroad extensively. None of them wanted to be surprised by an Iraqi bullet on a street in Istanbul or New Delhi.

Who at the time could have predicted that within a year, Saddam Hussein and his Ba'thist regime would be no more? Perhaps because of this New World Order, or because after a year of telephone and e-mail exchanges, of questions and answers and just plain talk, everyone involved in telling about the raid had come to trust one another. Or maybe, after twenty years, it was just time for the full story to be told. Or maybe for all those reasons, I was able for the first time to tell the entire story of this remarkable raid using all the real names and actual documents -- from the first Israeli intelligence reports of a meeting between French prime minister Jacques Chirac and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1974 to the epic political battles within Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin's government over whether to attack Iraq to the personal tales of the bombing as seen through the eyes of the pilots themselves.

It is a remarkable story of courage and conviction -- and of an action that proved to be a turning point in the history of Saddam's Iraq. In fact, it could well be argued, the Coalition's stunning military victory in finally liberating Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in May 2003 began on a cloudless evening over al-Tuwaitha on June 7, 1981. --Rodger W. Claire, Los Angeles, California


Road to Babylon

The noise of battle is in the land,
the noise of great destruction.

--Jeremiah 50:22
JUNE 6, 1981

General David Ivry's wife, Ofera, had invited friends in for the weekend. He had tried to make the best of it, yet over dinner that night and later over coffee he had been poor company. He was distracted, preoccupied. The guests assumed it was his "job." After all, the commander of the Israeli Air Force was bound to bring home the cares of office some days, even on the Sabbath. His wife wasn't so sure. Her husband had seemed tense ever since returning that morning from the official ceremony in Naples celebrating the change of command of the United States' 6th Fleet, stationed in the Mediterranean.

Short and compact, Ivry had the keen eyes and efficient movements of a bantamweight. Even sitting at the dinner table, he was as square and straight as an executive in a boardroom. His face, framed by short graying hair and a military mustache, was still youthful, showing none of the signs of a lifetime of holding the buck. Born in the small town of Gedera in southern Israel in 1935, Ivry was barely fourteen when the country won its independence. Like most of the men who made up the leadership of the nation, he was part of that first generation to be born, raised, and educated an Israeli -- the first time a Jew could call himself that in two thousand years. And like his peers, he had been forced to defend that privilege most of his life. At eighteen he joined the IAF, and by forty had already flown combat missions in the '56 Sinai campaign, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the War of Attrition in '70. Though years in the military made him short on get-to-know-you conversation, he was not without warmth. He had a quick smile, and his eyes grew soft and shiny whenever he talked about his wife -- or his pilots. But this evening, Ofera knew, something was wrong.

Later that night, after the guests retired and as Ivry and Ofera prepared for bed, he spoke up in spite of himself.

"Tomorrow, at sunset," the general began, looking at his wife carefully, "we will launch fighter planes to Iraq to attack a nuclear facility Saddam Hussein is using to make atomic bombs. It is a very risky mission. Never before in history has anyone bombed a nuclear reactor. If it fails, Iraq could attack us. The world may turn against us. Israel could be isolated."

Ofera did not respond at first. They had been married a long time, through four wars. He had left her to fight in each one, and each time he had left without telling her the details of his mission, leaving her to wonder and worry. And each time he had returned safely. Why should this time be any different?

"Is there nothing else to do?" she said, knowing the answer already.


Ivry hugged his wife. He had frightened her, but, almost perversely, he felt suddenly relieved. He had not slept an entire night through for weeks. But that evening, the minute his head hit the pillow, he was fast asleep.

His wife sat up awake the entire night.

Ivry got up early Sunday, drank a little coffee and picked at a roll, then kissed Ofera good-bye.

"Shalom," he said.


A staff car drove the general to the small air force base in the north of Tel Aviv, in the shadow of the Mediterranean city's towering landmark utility "chimney" winking its red aircraft-warning lights. Saluting the two corporals at the main gate, Ivry's driver passed the concrete barriers and followed the narrow asphalt road to IAF headquarters, where the general had spent the last year planning this mission. Waiting for him was Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, chief of Israel's military intelligence, known as AMAN. The two generals walked to the airfield tarmac and climbed aboard a waiting Sikorsky CH-53, the helicopter's long, razor-sharp blades whipping the air above its desert-brown-camouflage fuselage. The chopper would fly the commanders the relatively short hop south to Etzion Air Force Base in what had been Egypt's Sinai Peninsula before the Six-Day War. Located inland from Eilat, the chic Israeli resort town on the Red Sea favored by Scandinavian, German, and local tourists, Etzion was part of the territory Israel was about to cede back to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords that Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat had signed in 1978. What effect would the surprise attack have on Sadat and these negotiations? Ivry wondered, quickly pushing the thought aside.

The CH-53 soared above the arid plains of the Negev and southern Israel. The men spoke little during the hour-long journey. The air outside was already growing warm. Thank goodness it was still June, Ivry thought. In a month, temperatures in the Negev would be scorching. Finally, the helicopter banked left toward the gray ribbon of Etzion Airfield and the cluster of residential houses surrounding the base. It was midmorning, but the streets below were eerily quiet. As Ivry knew, most of the inhabitants had been evacuated in the preceding days -- nonessential personnel and base staff had been given leave or temporary reassignment. Weekend passes had been canceled and all military personnel were confined to base. Telephone communication into and out of Etzion was cut. Few inside the base had noticed that twelve F-16 Fighting Falcons had been landing on the far runway since early Friday. Operation Babylon, code-named after the ancient biblical name for Iraq and planned in complete secrecy for more than two years, was minus six hours and counting.

The Sikorsky landed with a thud. The generals jumped from the gangway, ducking beneath the blades and holding their caps against the rotor wash as they dashed across the tarmac toward the briefing room. Walking past the camouflaged underground hangars, Ivry could see dozens of crew chiefs and maintenance techs who were readying the huge fighters. The planes below stood menacingly anonymous, tinted in brown desert camouflage, the signature blue six-point Star of David on their tails painted over for this mission. Forklifts flanked by ordnance specialists on either side ferried two-thousand-pound MK-84 bombs to the planes, where they were raised to the release clips beneath the wings of the F-16s and mounted, the ordnance techs couldn't help thinking, perilously close to the pair of external fuel tanks that also hung beneath the wings on either side of the fuselage.

As Ivry walked up the short wooden ramp to the pilots' briefing room, he was surprised to see "Raful," Gen. Rafael Eitan, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Eitan was a larger-than-life character whose exploits as the tough commander of Israel's crack paratroopers during the bloody Sinai campaigns in '67 and '73 were legendary in the IDF. With thick shoulders, a handsome, open face, and big, burly eyebrows, he looked more like a backalley brawler than a three-star general.

Though he had suspected Eitan would come, Ivry was surprised nonetheless to see him standing there, his uniform immaculate and trim as always, but his usually animated face gaunt, his eyes ringed and tired. Raful's son, Yoram, a young IAF fighter pilot, had been killed just four days earlier right there on the base. Impetuous, irrepressibly energetic, the young pilot had lost control of his Kfir fighter during a training exercise and plummeted helplessly five thousand feet to the desert floor in a "dead man's" spin. They had interrupted the general in the middle of a mission readiness meeting to tell him of his son's death. "Raful" had left the base immediately to sit shivah, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days of seclusion. That was in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Now, Sunday morning, without advising anyone, the chief of staff had requisitioned a plane and flown down by himself in order to be with the men as they began their mission, gathering now inside the briefing room for the final run-through.

Eitan caught Ivry's look of concern. He smiled wanly.

"We ask a lot of these boys, don't we?" Eitan said.

Ivry understood the question. He had also lost a son in the service several years before.

"Maybe a little more this time," Ivry replied.

Eight pilots would have to fly the new, computerized, and highly sophisticated, almost futuristic American-made F-16 Falcons nearly six hundred miles over hostile territory to bomb Iraq's nearly completed Osirak reactor in al-Tuwaitha, a heavily defended nuclear installation twelve miles south of Baghdad. The mission would be the longest, most dangerous, most technologically challenging military operation in Israel's history. It would be the first time Israeli pilots had engaged an enemy at such a distance and so far from Israel's borders. The first time sleek and speedy F-16s would attempt takeoff carrying a weight that exceeded nearly twice the planes' design specs. The first time anyone, anywhere, had bombed a nuclear reactor.

The very idea seemed somehow blasphemous. Since the beginning of the Manhattan Project in the forties, statesmen, philosophers, even the physicists themselves had questioned the hubris of attempting to harness the frightening power of nuclear fission and, even more worrisome, nuclear fusion, the elemental energy that fueled the sun, the fountainhead of all life on earth. What, then, would such men think of Ivry's audacious plan to obliterate the engine of this forbidden energy -- and, God forbid! -- maybe unleash it on the world? In a last, unintended irony that conjured exactly such prophetic warnings, the attack on Osirak was timed to commence exactly at sunset.

It was 1300 hours. Ivry and Eitan watched as the men filed into the briefing room, smiling and nodding hello to one another in the easy manner of a family gathering at breakfast time, despite an obvious tension in the air. General Ivry had personally picked each of the eight pilots for the mission. In a country that had already fought five wars in twenty-five years, the armed services were an elemental part of Israeli society. Most of the country's leaders and policymakers were former military men. Military service was compulsory for all Israelis at age eighteen -- men served three to four years and one day a month in the reserves until age fifty-five, women two to two and one-half years and one day a month until age twenty-five. Young men and women shouldering M-16s were a common sight on downtown streets in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Everyone served. But those who chose to become IAF pilots, to become one out of ten who passed years of flying school and intense training, were an elite breed.

They wore with pride the berets and insignias of their command. They were recognized throughout the nation as belonging to an exclusive military caste. As they grew older, they would attend one another's sons' and daughters' graduations and weddings, and the births and bar mitzvahs of their children's children. Ivry and his team had spent a year together training in secrecy every day. They had shared jokes and meals. Had met one another's wives. Each man had become like a son to the two generals. And now they might never see some of their faces again.

The modeling experts in Operations who computed these kinds of things quietly projected at least two casualties -- one due to equipment failure, one to enemy antiaircraft fire.

"I wish I were going with them," Eitan said, letting slip more emotion, Ivry thought, than he meant to.

The two generals moved to the front of the room and took their seats before the mission briefing, sitting just to the right of the podium and a huge map of the Middle East. One by one the operations specialists updated the pilots on the weather and flying conditions; General Saguy and military intelligence again covered the Saudi radar and AWACS patrols, the Iraqi airfields outside Baghdad, and the formidable antiaircraft and SAM (surface-to-air missile) battery emplacements surrounding al-Tuwaitha. The team leader rehashed the flight plan. They would navigate only a hundred feet above the ground over Aqaba, Saudi Arabia, and western Iraq. They were reminded to observe radio silence the entire journey. Each plane would carry only two air-to-air Sidewinder missiles instead of the usual four and no jamming devices to scramble MiG and SAM-6 radars. Too much weight. They had barely enough fuel to get to Baghdad and back even without the extra poundage. Each pilot had been requisitioned a day's ration of food and water, a pistol, five thousand Iraqi dinars, and PRCs, the electronic homing devices that would guide SAR (search-and-rescue) teams to their positions should they be shot down.

"But do not activate your PRC until nightfall," the team leader ordered. "We cannot take the chance your signal might be picked up by bad guys and the mission blown."

At 1440 hours the mission briefing ended and the pilots filed out the door. The sun was now high overhead, the desert air heavy. Inside the underground hangar the F-16s sat silently under the bright lights, lined in two rows, their noses down and brooding. Each pilot made a last visual inspection of his aircraft, then climbed the steel ladder up to the cockpit.

The crew chiefs followed the pilots up the ladders, carrying their flight helmets. With a farewell pat on the shoulder and wishes of "Good luck" from the chiefs, the pilots pulled down the glass-bubble canopies, the unique see-through feature that had given rise to the plane's nickname, dubbed by skeptical veterans, the "glass coffin." One at a time the F-100 Pratt & Whitney engines were lit. The high whine of turbines and sucked air created a deafening roar that shook the asphalt beneath. Inside the cockpits, the pilots went through the computerized BITS, built-in test systems, checking off the navigation, weapons, mechanical, and electrical systems before final takeoff. Then, slowly, finally, the fighters taxied up and out of the hangar and onto the tarmac at the head of the runway, staggered in two parallel lines, four planes to a line.

The flight controller ran before the planes, wearing protective hearing mufflers and carrying red signal flashlights. The team leader gave the thumbs-up though the glass canopy. The mission was "Go."

The three generals stood off the runway, next to the taxi vans: Ivry, the commander who had conceived the raid; Eitan, the general who had ordered it; and Saguy, the intelligence chief who had once opposed it. After years of planning and worry and failure, they were spectators now, impotently standing on the sidelines, each left to his thoughts. Ivry squinted down the tarmac at the fighter-bombers, the wavy, superheated air from the jet exhausts obscuring the outline of the planes as though some flawed pane of glass had been dropped between them. Soon the Falcons would hurl down the runway and lift off to the sky, two at a time, climbing eastward, looking very much like the birds of prey they were named after.

Would their pilots come home safe? Would they be successful? What would the world think? What would be the final reckoning of this Raid on the Sun? Ivry thought.

The general turned wordlessly back in the direction of the command bunker, where he would wait and wonder what the night would bring.

Meet the Author

Rodger W. Claire, a former magazine editor, is the first journalist to have been granted complete access to all of the individuals involved in the raid on Osirak and to classified materials detailing it. The author of numerous articles and two screenplays, he lives in Los Angeles.

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Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel's Secret Campaign That Denied Saddam the Bomb 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Factual and a thrilling story of the men involved in one of the most audacious military operations in history.
john pattwell More than 1 year ago
This book tells you why the Israeli air force and their Mosad are the best. Great read!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I was only 13 when the raid happened so I didn't know much about it. This book is excellent. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the Israeli Air Force. Those guys are truly amazing. They are fearless, professional and industrious. They trained for two years for this raid and much research was done by many to make this mission a success. Read this book. God bless Israel and the Jewish people !!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Both my father and I really enjoyed this book. It was a definite page-turner and an easy read. The various technical aspects of nuclear reactors and the raid itself are easily digestible by those of us with no military or science background. It's amusing to read about the negative world-wide (including USA) reaction at the time and compare it to all the talk now about how the Israelis really helped us out with Saddam twenty years ago by taking out his reactor. And regardless of where you stand on the middle east issues, after reading this book you'll have to have at least a grudging respect for Israeli military planning and execution.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I didn¿t expect this book to be this good. It really reads like a short Tom Clancy thriller. It is a very good, detailed account of the planning, and covert operations of the attack. It has everything; secrecy, high stakes, behind the scenes, espionage, humor, and first hand accounts by all the participants. I remember hearing the attack on the evening news in 1981, but I can¿t believe how little the world has known about the details (many of which were wrong). To me, this book wasn¿t dull and dry, but very exciting and a fast read. It gives very good background without going into overwhelming, worthless details. I highly recommend it especially to those who are readers of aviation and military history. It sheds a floodlight on an all but forgotten world changing event.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was amazed at how Claire manages to show the anticipation, anxiety and angst that comes from partcipating in a covert operation. Besides tons of information and background on the dictator Saddam, the story reads like a classic military tale . . . letting the reader in how important the Israeli Air Force felt it was to eliminate the threat of Saddam having access to a nuclear reactor and the means to make an atomic bomb. A must read for anyone wanting to fully understand the current situation in Iraq.