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.
JUNE 6, 1981
RAMAT DAVID, JEZREEL VALLEY, ISRAEL
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.