Forty years after Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facility, there is still no Arab state with an atomic bomb. Does this prove the raid was justified?

7 June 2021 By Paul Martin

A sign on the desert road south of Baghdad, curiously in English not Arabic, pointed to what it described as an “Engineering Factory”. It was the only hint that there was something unusual to be found just off the beaten track. Until days before, this “Engineering factory” had been nothing less than Saddam Hussein’s project for nuclear dominance of the Middle East.

On a pleasant evening on Sunday 7 June 1981 the sound of eight jets screaming through the sky had astonished scientists and technicians who had gone to their homes about 16 miles away. For them it had been a normal day’s work at the Taiwatha nuclear complex, about 35 miles outside Baghdad. Minutes later, their French-built ultra-modern reactor had been rendered useless.

“If we had not destroyed it,” the raid’s leader, Israeli Air Force Wing Commander Zeev Raz told me in 1991, “Iraq would still be occupying Kuwait, Saddam Hussain would have stayed in power, and we in the West would be facing Saddam’s blackmail.”

See the source image
The destroyed reactor’s dome
See the source image
Media worldwide tired to provide colour images of the raid. C.

Too early for this angle, says Eilam. The view of the Iraqi nuclear reactor as seen on the screen of one of the attacking F-16s (Photo credit: IDF/AF via Tsahi Ben-Ami/ Flash 90)
Pilot’s cockpit film as the F16 hones in on its target near Baghdad

See the source imageIsraeli F16 pilots pose together after their successful bombing mission
Photographed son after the Osirak raid, the 8th pilot Ilan Ramon, who later died in the U.S. space shuttle disaster.  (Screen capture: Channel 10)
See the source image
The Osirak nuclear site just before it was destroyed.
Part of the destroyed buildings around the reactor.

Raz also told me that if Iraqi jet-fighters had engaged any of the eight invading Israeli F16 jets, they would not have had enough fuel to get back to base after dropping their payloads. Planners had expected two of the eight planes to be short down. 

They had flown so close to the ground that radar had not picked them up. King Hussein of Jordan saw planes sweep by as he was on his yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba, but, by the time he had alerted his armed forces and they had (or had not) communicated with their Iraqi allies, the attack was done and dusted.

The world strongly condemned Israel – the critical chorus including severe statements from the United States, which was helping Iraq in its long-running war against Iran.   As soon as the raid was announced I was sent overnight to Baghdad from Cairo by the BBC, for whom I was a foreign correspondent.   

We spent several frustrating days cooped up in the Mansour Melia Hotel, which was wired up with listening equipment controlled by East Germans on the 13th floor. We left our radios blaring loudly when we wanted to say anything to anyone.

I sneaked out of the hotel, with a Reuters reporter, and we quickly hired a
taxi to take us, supposedly, to the site of the Battle of Qadisiya where Arab armies in 636 AD had defeated the Persians.

It just so ‘happened’ that the Taiwatha nuclear complex lay not far off the
road en route. A previous journalistic trip that actually got close to where French technicians were staying had led to two American television staff
disappearing.  Several days later, after the UN Secretary-General intervened, they were freed unharmed.

All we saw on the way to our ‘touristic expedition’, near the sign saying
“Engineering Factory”, was what appeared to be some distant buildings
which were still standing. We decided not to venture any closer as the taxi
driver would probably have to report our movements, not to mention the fact that the place was probably crawling with Saddam’s soldiers.

[Days later, as I was flying out of Baghdad, I was detained at the airport and brought into a small security office. This did not bode well — the previous foreign journalist (from The Observer) detained in Baghdad had been executed.

However, their interrogation was, surprisingly, not about our trip near the nuclear site. My interrogators were livid about something else: that I had actually on a different day taken a taxi to the national television building – without permission. I told them the truth: I was hoping to doorstep their deputy president Tariq Aziz, who I saw was doing a live interview.

Two hours later I was allowed to board the plane, which was still waiting.
The passengers on board gave me a slow hand-clap. What a relief when it took off!]

There is no doubt that the audacious air attack on the prestigious French-supplied highly advanced nuclear reactor in 1981 was a huge setback to Saddam Hussein’s stated ambition to be the preeminent leader of the entire Arab world.

There is also no doubt that he felt having a nuclear weapons capability would enormously have advanced his cause.

However what is not so clear is just how far Saddam would have gone if indeed he had successfully developed the A-bomb.

It was gratifying to have been at the start and, it seemed, the denouement, of a major international story.   I had been the first Western journalist to publish a story about the nature of the Osirak project. I had obtained some astonishing documents, authenticated by a senior American military attaché whose embassy was based in a Western country, and after extensive further sourcing I published a world exclusive article that ran in The Times in July 1978.

Here is what I wrote:

T he Times |  July 4, 1978 

US trying to stop French nuclear bomb fuel reaching Iraq

Western diplomats fear that uranium weapon could end up in hands of Arab terrorists 

By Paul Martin 

The United States has been exerting pressure on France to withhold a planned delivery of weapons-grade uranium to Iraq, official sources in Washington have confirmed. 

They said the State Department, at the instigation of President Carter, has held talks with France, during which the United States expressed its ” grave concern” that the Iraqis could use the uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons. 

The highly-enriched uranium is required to fuel a 70 megawatt research reactor, Osirak, which is being built by the French at Taiwatha, in north Iraq. It is France’s first export of its prototype materials-testing reactor Osiris, operating at Saclay, in Seine-et-Oise. 

Although details of contracts signed under the France-Iraq nuclear accord of November, 1975, have never been revealed fully, the French Energy Department confirmed that an initial delivery containing 12 kilograms of 93 per cent enriched uranium would be made soon. Further supplies would be provided as needed, a spokesman said. 

Western intelligence sources maintain that France is committed to the transfer of six loads, involving 70 kilograms of the uranium, before the plant is completed early in 1980. American officials point out that, whichever version is correct, Iraq will have sufficient quantities of easily extractable weapons-grade uranium to make at least one atom bomb. 

They said the United States viewed the possible transfer of the uranium as a far more serious development than planned deliveries by European countries in 1981 of an enriched uranium and reprocessing plant to Brazil. They point out that, besides the Soviet Union and China, no developing country without close links to the Western block has received weapons grade uranium. 

The Americans note the political extremism of the Baathist regime in Iraq In recent years it has been at loggerheads with its neighbours, Iran, Syria and Kuwait, and is an implacable enemy of Israel. It is host to the two most extreme Palestinian groups, Black June and the organisation of Dr Wadie Haddad, both outlawed for their hardline terrorist activities by the mainstream Palestinian Liberation Organisation. 

Fears have been expressed in Western diplomatic circles that the uranium, or an Iraqi-constructed bomb, might end up in terrorist hands with the connivance of sympathetic Iraqi officials. Israel is thought to possess its own nuclear weapons, and American officials point to the dangers of nuclear weapons being available to either side in the event of another Middle East war. 

France has refused steadfastly to budge from its position that it will not renege on a contract. “They have told us to go jump in a lake”, an American official said. 

Last week, however, a far less bellicose note was sounded. French officials disclosed plans to test a new uranium fuel called “caramel” for the reactor. It would have an enrichment of between 7 and 8 per cent, totally unsuitable for conversion into bombs, for which at least 70 per cent enrichment is needed. 

In an apparent reference to Iraq, its only known potential recipient of the fuel, the officials hinted that if the tests next month were successful they would try to persuade developing countries receiving their fuel to accept ” caramel “. 

Official sources in Washington argue, however, that the French had told them that their alternative fuel would not be ready until some time after the Iraqi plant was planned to go into operation. They welcomed, however, this first sign that the French might be weakening. 

Two recent developments have strengthened America’s bargaining position. One is the increased political instability prevailing inside Iraq, where the regime recently executed 21 pro-Moscow Communist party officials for their alleged infiltration of the armed forces. 

The other is a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency admitting that the international nuclear safeguards system, for which it is responsible, is inadequate and that the agency would not necessarily be able to discover illicit diversion of nuclear fuel for the construction of bombs. 

An agency spokesman in Vienna said that Iraq, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, had not informed it about any planned transfer of uranium. In terms of the treaty, it was obliged to do so “as much as possible in advance of the transfer of the nuclear fuel” and, in any case, not less than 180 days before the delivery date. 

Nor had France given any notification. France is not a signatory but behaves as if it were.

 Diplomatic sources are confident France will come round to the American point of view. The United States has a trump card: it has the power to cut off its supplies of highly enriched uranium to France, which depends on the United States for over nine-tenths of its requirements. 

(Copyright Paul Martin, 1978.) 

This report proved to be entirely accurate. 

This report proved to be entirely accurate – even though when I offered a similar story, with some follow-up about an Italian ‘hot-cell’ acquired by Iraq, that august newspaper rejected it.  They said they had already sent a reporter to France and could find no evidence.

Nearly twelve years later another attack took place on Iraq — this time by a Coalition, mainly of US and British forces, but including some Arab states.

Saddam, who had taken over the neighbouring country, Kuwait, had by all accounts stepped up efforts to develop his nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities. But he was nowhere near ready to actually develop, let alone deploy, a nuclear bomb.

How though was Western intelligence hoodwinked into thinking he had some biological and chemical weapons that could be deployed on the battlefield “within 45 minutes”, a lamentably false claim made by British premier Tony Blair?  A nuclear programme was also said to be active.

When in Iraq not long after the Second Gulf War in 2003, I think I discovered one likely answer.  Saddam’s scientists had been telling him untruths.

I discovered that a pro-Saddam scientist’s inaccuracy was not necessarily a lie, though. Dr Khidir Hamza had possibly been a victim of the military and scientific community’s paranoia and fear — of Saddam.

First let’s examine what I wrote.

Iraq operates nuclear weapons assembly line, defector claims
times online ^ | 9/16/02

By Paul Martin.

Saddam Hussein is developing nuclear capability, using pirated centrifuges to refine uranium.

IRAQ is using pirated copies of German equipment to process nuclear material in an assembly line that will regularly produce nuclear weapons, an Iraqi scientist who led a section of the Iraqi nuclear bomb programme before his defection in 1994 claims.

President Saddam Hussein may need only months more to put together up to three nuclear cores, if he has not already done so while his programme has not been monitored, the defector says.

Dr Khidir Hamza also said that, even if given unfettered access, UN inspectors would find it far more difficult to detect the nuclear assembly line. “The beauty of the present system is that the units are each very small and in the four years since the inspectors left they will have been concealed underground or in basements or buildings that outwardly seem normal,” he said.

In an interview with The Times Dr Hamza painted a more alarming picture than had been laid out in a report last week by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It concluded that Saddam’s regime could make a bomb within months as Iraq had almost all the hardware and technology needed to build it, but only if it succeeded in smuggling in the necessary uranium or radioactive material.

The Iraqi defector claimed that the necessary uranium was already being processed inside Iraq. The material, he said, comprises 1.3 tonnes of low-enriched material bought many years ago from Brazil.

He said that Iraq had also been processing many tonnes of yellow-cake uranium, which has been extracted from large supplies of phosphates dotted around the country. Nuclear inspectors had been shown 162 tonnes of the material, but Dr Hamza said there were several other phosphate sites that were not inspected.

“The amount of uranium it already has — conservatively estimated in a German intelligence report at ten tonnes of natural uranium and 1.3 tonnes of low-enriched uranium — is enough for three nuclear weapons,” Dr Hamza said.

Before their expulsion, the inspectors dismantled an illegally imported German centrifuge installation that had been used to refine progressively natural or low-enriched uranium until it becomes suitable for weapons.

But Dr Hamza said that by then the “cat was out the bag”.

The key was provided, he said, when the German Karl Schaab smuggled in the centrifuge in 1989 and later helped Iraq to build a second. “We videoed as it was put up, so we could build identical ones. Then he also provided 130 classified documents and charts detailing every aspect of the construction. When the inspectors took away the original centrifuge, we already had the know-how. I believe there are probably hundreds of copies today,” said Dr Hamza, who now lives in the United States. “They are easy to hide — undetectable from satellites if built within or under other buildings.”

The problem for Iraq, he said, is simply to keep reprocessing the material so that after each run it gets more and more enriched, until it reaches the 90 per cent needed for nuclear weapons explosion. Having 1.3 tonnes of low-enriched uranium (3 to 4 per cent enriched) rather than only natural uranium (0.7 per cent enriched) meant that the process was speeded up.

For a really efficient nuclear weapons programme, thousands of such centrifuges were needed because each had a very small output of uranium, he said. The centrifuges spin at very high speeds and the joints are held together by magnets at top and bottom. The centrifuge tubes are made either of steel or aluminium.

The United States said this month that a shipment to Iraq of such highly refined aluminium tubes had been intercepted. Last week Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, disclosed that Saddam has been secretly attempting to buy aluminium tubes.

For every intercepted shipment of either small motors or precision tubes for the centrifuges, several would probably get through, Dr Hamza said, pointing out that a container could hold thousands. Orders would be placed for the tubes with a Western company via a third country at relatively low precision, and then a later order would suddenly specify far more precise production, costing four or five times as much and giving the factory far higher profits, he said.

“The whole centrifuge method of getting to a bomb is much easier for Iraq than, for example, it was for Pakistan, which took 17 years in going the same route. They had to steal bits and pieces, whereas we got a whole centrifuge and all the plans,” Dr Hamza said.

Experts suggest that the method used by Iraq can take between four and seven years, depending on the number of centrifuges, and the process would have begun in earnest again as soon as the inspectors left in 1998 and possibly even earlier, Dr Hamza said. “This means, unless he’s stopped soon, Saddam will have set up a whole nuclear bomb industry, not just have made a couple of bombs,” he added.

Dr Hamza said that it would be suicidal for the West to wait much longer before eliminating Saddam’s regime. “Inspectors going in now will have an almost impossible task to discover what’s going on in the nuclear field,” he said. “Since the inspectors left, Saddam has had four years at least to hide what needs to be hidden. Now he’s well on the road, his game will be to stall and stall — if America lets him.”

Ends The Times

I had quoted an Iraqi nuclear scientist who, we later discovered, had exaggerated the speed at which Iraq could actually have achieved nuclear weapons production.

Saddam had by all accounts stepped up efforts to develop his nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities. But he was nowhere near ready to actually develop, let alone deploy, a nuclear bomb.

How though was Western intelligence hoodwinked into thinking he had some capacities in the biological and chemical field that could be deployed on the battlefield “within 45 minutes”, a claim made by British premier Tony Blair?

When in Iraq not long after the war ended, I think i discovered one likely answer. Saddam’s scientists were telling him lies.

But one subsequent report I wrote was much more controversial. It quoted an Iraqi nuclear scientist who, we later discovered, had exaggerated the speed at which Iraq could actually have achieved nuclear weapons production.

I discovered this scientist’s inaccuracy was not necessarily a lie, though. He had possibly been a victim of the military and scientific community’s paranoia and fear — of Saddam.

I had been offered, for a very reasonable fee, a document that included a detailed map of a supposed nuclear test. Naming its authors as army generals and top scientists, it showed that animals had been placed or tied at different distances to the explosion. It displayed the distances at which each had apparently died.

The weapon appeared to a sort of neutron bomb.

Remarks scrawled on the document ordered that those who carried it out should each get a Mercedes car as a reward.

I had previously heard that Saddam did indeed dish out ‘rewards’ of this type for work or services he considered good.

Later I asked members of an intelligence department of a Western coalition ally to examine the document. Their conclusion: the experiment could not have worked by the method described.

The document and map were therefore either forged, or — and this is what I suspect – genuine, but deliberately distorting the truth so as to gain Saddam’s approval. They could hardly have stated that their work for the last few months or years was a failure — Saddam might well have dispensed with their services in a very conclusive way.

In general, then, I think he believed nuclear weaponry was being developed for Iraq — but the scientists and generals were too scared to tell him the truth.

This might explain why the supposed whistle-blower Khidir Hamza was not lying either to the world. Perhaps he had read of some of the experiments and even believed them (partially or completely) himself.

There is no doubt that Saddam was enagged in an active long-ange missile programme, and that he kept it secret from UN inspectors over the previous ten years.  That seriously broke the strictures of Un resolution 1441. 

But there was no evidence that these missiles were being weaponised with any mass-destruction substances, let alone nuclear material or an A-bomb.

“It’s like putting up a sing on the4 door: beware of the Dog’ when you have no dog,” Hans Blix, the UN chief inspector prior to the 2003 war, told the BBC’s Panorama programme.

Exactly.  Well, more or less.