Today, June 7, 2012, marks the 31st anniversary of Operation Opera, the Israeli airstrike on the Osirak nuclear reactor facility just outside of Baghdad in Iraq. Also known as Operation Babylon, the mission consisted of eight F-16 jet fighters, each armed with two Mark-84, 2,000 pound ′iron bombs′, to fly nearly 1,000 miles to hit their target. Iraq had been dabbling in nuclear experiments since the 1960s and in the mid ′70s, arranged to buy two reactors from the French. For $300 Million dollars, Saddam Hussein purchased the reactors, as well as a supply of enriched uranium fuel and a team of French technicians to help in the construction and training of Iraqi engineers. Israel felt threatened by Iraq′s nuclear ambitions and they were not alone.
In 1977, Israel′s intelligence agency, the MOSSAD, began operations to sabotage the construction. By April of 1979, one such plot involved a bomb which damaged the larger of the two reactors. Iraq faced a further setback in September of 1980, when Iran, which whom Iraq had started a war with, sent a pair of F-4 Phantom jets to attack the facility, but with only minimal results. Rumors abound that Israel and Iran were working together to finish the job.
The final attack came on June 7, 1981, a Sunday, chosen since the French technicians would have the day off and not be present. The reactors were still empty as the fuel rods were stored at a separate site. The Israeli jets, which they obtained from the United States which had originally intended to sell them to Iran, departed from the Etzion Airbase and began their 990-mile journey. Violating Jordanian and Saudi airspace, the Israeli pilots flew low to avoid radar, but were still detected. While over Jordan, the pilots claimed to be Saudis on a training mission and got lost. Over Saudi Arabia, the pilots radioed ground controllers that they were Jordanians who were lost. The squadron flew directly over the yacht of King Hussein of Jordan, who was vacationing in the Gulf of Aqaba. The king himself actually saw the aircraft and immediately ordered a warning be sent to Iraq, but communications were slow and broke down.
Along with the F-16s, six F-15 fighters provided an escort for the bombers. Upon crossing the border of Iraq, two of the F-15s stayed with the bombers while the rest took up defense positions. Israel timed the attack very well. Arriving over the target at about 6:35pm, the crew of an Iraqi radar station were having dinner and had shut their radar off. The Israeli jets made their bomb run, with eight of their sixteen bombs hitting the reactor building dead-on. In less than two minutes, the attack was over and the target destroyed. The Israeli pilots turned about and headed for home.
Ten Iraqi soldiers were killed, along with one French engineer. The world responded with outrage publicly, but behind the scenes, most countries were happy to see the outcome. When President Ronald Reagan was informed of the attack, he remarked, ″Boys will be boys!″ Iraq vowed to rebuild, but by 1984, France backed out of the deal. In 1991, the United States finished the job with an airstrike of their own during Operation Desert Storm.
So 31 years after Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactors, we once again face another potential threat, this time from Iran. Israel has made it abundantly clear that they will act if necessary. Negotiations have proved to be a waste of time. Russia, who is supplying Iran with the hardware, technicians and uranium fuel, is far less likely than France to abandon their client. Will the lessons of 31 years ago be learned and repeated again? Or will the world sit on its hands and prevent Israel from taking action?