WORLD

Fallout spreads from Osirak

Israel's sortie against Iraq's nuclear program raises a storm of protest

Marci McDonald June 22 1981
WORLD

Fallout spreads from Osirak

Israel's sortie against Iraq's nuclear program raises a storm of protest

Marci McDonald June 22 1981

Fallout spreads from Osirak

WORLD

Israel's sortie against Iraq's nuclear program raises a storm of protest

Marci McDonald

It was 6:30 p.m. on a scorching Sunday in Tammuz, 30 km southeast of Baghdad, when French technician Jacques Rimbaud sauntered into a café to order an after-work aperitif. Suddenly he saw four F-16s streak across the sky like sinister dragonflies, make two swift passes over the site marked ELECTRONIC INDUSTRIES by an innocuous highway sign and drop their ominous larvae over the almost completed concrete hulk he had vacated moments before: Iraq’s $275-million, 70 megawatt Osirak nuclear research reactor. In the seconds that followed the scene before his eyes crumpled to rubble, with reverberations that were to shake the world.

Not quite 24 hours later, as Israelis basked on the beaches of Eilat and Ashkelon in the Shavuot feast-day sun, the Voice of Israel crackled over their transistor radios with an announcement so startling that when station director Emmanuel Halperin first heard it he had telephoned his uncle, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, “to make sure it wasn’t a hoax.” Within minutes, as news of the daredevil daylight Israeli air strike flashed to capitals around the globe, the phone rang on the desk of 43year-old Montreal-born investigative journalist Robert Hutchison outside Geneva. “You’re kidding,” he said, sure that his caller was perpetrating a distinctly unfunny joke.

An Israeli air strike on the contentious French-built Osirak reactor, feared for its potential to produce an Islamic atomic bomb, was, after all, the key twist to the plotline of a “factional” novel Hutchison was working on, based in part on an Iraqi nuclear physicist’s diaries smuggled out of prison. But for Hutchison there was no joy in the eerie realization that life had come to imitate art. “What’s going to happen the next time?” he asked.

Indeed, in the week since Begin sought to justify the world’s first preventive nuclear air strike as an act of “supreme legitimate self-defence,” it is just that dread which has clouded the cocktail of official condemnations and veiled off-the-record sighs of relief that has streamed out of capitals from Riyadh to Ottawa. As the 21-member Arab League hastily convened for an emergency session in Baghdad, few doubted an even more specific riposte from the bruised ego of Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein, whose billions of dollars of sophisticated Soviet hardware failed to send up so much as a nervous flutter while Israeli pilots gaily babbling in Arabic winged at low§ levels more than 960 km through his airspaee under Jordanian markings. In preparation for just such military or terrorist revenge, the sky over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv droned all week with Israeli defence patrols on special alert. The four stunting bombers, with F-15 fighter escorts, were reported to have almost completely demolished the reactor, although the Israelis weren’t releasing any of the photographs they have and the Iraqis were understandably closemouthed about the extent of the damage.

When opposition Labor leader Shimon Peres got a grip on his initial ebullience over the raid, charging the government with opportunistic timing in trying to boost its hopes for the June 30 national elections, Begin was left to protest that, had he waited until the reactor was operational, the attack would have risked spreading deadly radiation over the dense populace of Baghdad. But as it was the strike still produced deadly fallout: not only did it embarrass Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat just as the peace process was once more beginning to make headway, and put both Paris’ and Washington’s new pro-Israeli tilts to a severe test, leaving Israel more isolated than ever, it opened a Pandora’s box of double-edged morality and dangerous precedents.

As New York Times columnist James Reston puzzled, could India now justify an outing to decimate the fortress of Kahuta, on the route between Islamabad and Kashmir, where Pakistan is believed to be on the brink of producing the first Islamic bomb? “Are we to see the same sort of rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, Black Africa and South Africa?” worried Marsha McGraw of Washington’s Arms Control Association, who termed it a “strategic nightmare.”

That fear was implicit in the extraordinary session of the UN Security Council which met last weekend at Iraq’s request. Although U.S. veto power protected Israel from the Arab call for sanctions at the UN, the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted 29 to 2 to recommend that Israel be suspended. This is likely to be more inconvenient than damaging to Israel’s nuclear program, but the countries voting for the suspension included such usual stalwarts as Brazil, Britain and Chile. Only Canada and the U.S. supported Israel.

In Washington President Ronald Reagan was doubly embarrassed. The raid came just as he was trying to convince moderate Arabs to rally in a strategic consensus against the Soviet Union, claiming the Israelis were no longer the bad guys. Instead, he found himself personally stiffening the state department’s reprimands to Jerusalem and hastening to assure five Arab ambassadors over tea that the White House knew nothing of Begin’s plans. The U.S. also withheld shipment of four F-16s to Israel, although the planes will almost certainly get there later. However, if the four American-piloted AWACS, which the U.S. supplied to Saudi Arabia, really did fail to pick up the Israelis’ tracks over northern Saudi airspace while they were floating over the Persian Gulf, the Arabs can hardly feel reassured by Washington’s promises of military security.

In Cairo, the semiofficial daily AlAhram published a front-page editorial discreetly urging the Israelis to vote Begin out of office—a reflection of Sadat’s rage at having been made to look a fool by appearing so cosy with Begin at their Sharmel Sheikh summit only three days previously. In Paris, the raid couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for President François Mitterrand, who had campaigned both for a new pro-Israeli stand and against the 1975 sale of the Osirak to Iraq.

While denouncing the Israeli strike as “unacceptable” and a violation of international law, his government went out of its way to assure that Mitterrand had not changed plans to be the first French head of state to visit Jerusalem. But it is a tightrope which may fail to satisfy King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, who lunched with the president Saturday and who, along with Saddam Hussein, is France’s major oil supplier. In fact, the key test of French goodwill toward the Arabs will be read in whether the country consents to rebuild the Osirak.

Ever since the mysterious bombing in April, 1979, of a French factory which made parts for the Iraqi reactor (believed to be the work of Mossad, the Israeli secret service), the French have been of two minds about continuing a experts agree seemed destined to produce an eventual bomb. In June, 1980, an Egyptian nuclear physicist working on the Iraqi reactor was murdered, equally mysteriously, in Paris’ Méridien Hotel, and since then French and Italian companies participating in the Osirak project have received threats to property or personnel. Even last September’s abortive Iranian air raid on the site was at first thought to be Israeli handiwork, since denied, although some reports suggest that the Persians got the aerial maps for the assault from a former Israeli ambassador to Tehran.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, an Iraqi nuclear physicist named Dr. Hussein al Shahristani, believed to be the inspiration for Robert Hutchison’s novel, was arrested at a demonstration in December, 1979, and sentenced to death for anti-government activity. Although the Iraqi authorities swear the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, Shahristani, who received his original PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto, hasn’t been seen by his Canadian wife since February, 1980, despite intercessions by Amnesty International.

In the light of such a jinxed and tarnished history, it was no wonder the French were happy the raid had “bought time” to study resurrecting Osirak. Indeed, conservative columnist William Safire contended that there was so much “secret gratitude” for Israel’s nuclear Entebbe that the wave of international condemnation constituted “an orgy of hypocrisy.” Still, his argument left unanswered whether Israel might be equally justified in bombing a future reactor in Egypt, a nation which has concluded a nuclear agreement with the United States. Or whether Col. Moammar Khadafy of Libya could claim self-defence should he carry out his threat to destroy Israel’s own nuclear installation at Dimona, in the Negev desert, where several bombs are reliably believed to be stockpiled.

In press conferences last week, Begin protested that Israel would sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (which Iraq had already done) only when peace was made in the Middle East. In a letter cannily dispatched to UN SecretaryGeneral Kurt Waldheim at the same time, he also reiterated his proposal for creating a nuclear-free zone. It is the only solution which journalist-cumnovelist Hutchison sees for world security after months of interviewing international nuclear scientists. “It can’t be left to Israel,” he says. “It’s too volatile. The superpowers have got to impose some kind of de-nuclearization.”

With files from Eric Silver in Jerusalem and William Lowther in Washington.