Why did Israel unilaterally attack Iraq in 1981?
On June 7, 1981 Israeli warplanes struck the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad. This “unprovoked” action by Israel was a pre-emptive strike to deny Iraq the capability of producing nuclear weapons, weapons Israeli intelligence believed were in the works. Iraqi defenses were taken by surprise and opened fire too late. In one minute and twenty seconds, the reactor lay in ruins. The IAF planes returned to base without losses.
Israeli intelligence had followed the Iraqi military buildup in the late 1970s. Saddam Hussein had assembled an army of 190,000 men organized into 12 divisions, augmented by 2,200 tanks and 450 aircraft. Both the Isreali Labor government of 1974-77 and the Likud government of 1977-81 closely watched and debated what to do about the Osirak reactor then being constructed with considerable French and Italian help.
Labor favored continued diplomatic efforts with the French to head off Iraqi nuclear capability, but Likud under Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided that was too dangerous. The idea of Iraq, or any Arab state, holding nuclear weapons over Israel was intolerable. While estimates of the time left before Iraq would actually have a nuclear weapon ranged from two years to ten years, Begin felt it was too risky to wait because the estimates might be wrong and political developments might make it impossible to strike later. The decision to go ahead was taken and the mission was carried out by nine IAF jets.
Immediately following the raid, Israel announced:
- Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.
Israel?s preemptive strike against Iraq was heartily condemned in Washington and by the United Nations, although privately most governments, even in the Middle East, were pleased to see the setback to Saddam Hussein's ambition. In 1991, Maj. Gen. David Ivry, commander of the Israeli Air Force at the time of the raid, received a framed satellite reconnaissance photo of the destroyed reactor. The photo was inscribed:
- With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job you did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!
The photo was signed by Dick Cheney, then-U.S. Defense Secretary and later Vice President