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1981: Israel bombs Baghdad nuclear reactor

The Israelis have bombed a French-built nuclear plant near Iraq's capital, Baghdad, saying they believed it was designed to make nuclear weapons to destroy Israel.

It is the world's first air strike against a nuclear plant.

An undisclosed number of F-15 interceptors and F-16 fighter bombers destroyed the Osirak reactor 18 miles south of Baghdad, on the orders of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The army command said all the Israeli planes returned safely.

The 70-megawatt uranium-powered reactor was near completion but had not been stocked with nuclear fuel so there was no danger of a leak, according to sources in the French atomic industry.

Mortal danger

The Israeli Government explained its reasons for the attack in a statement saying: "The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose."

It acted now because it believed the reactor would be completed shortly - either at the beginning of July or the beginning of September 1981.

The Israelis criticised the French and Italians for supplying Iraq with nuclear materials and plegded to defend their territory at all costs.

The statement said: "We again call upon them to desist from this horrifying, inhuman deed. Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people."

The attack took place on a Sunday, they said, to prevent harming the French workers at the site who would have taken the day off.

There have been no reported casualties.

The Osirak reactor is part of a complex that includes a second, smaller reactor - also French-built - and a Soviet-made test reactor already in use.

Iraq denies the reactor was destined to produce nuclear weapons.

In Context
News of the audacious raid did not actually emerge until 24 hours later when Israel made its announcement. Only then did Iraq admit it had happened and express indignation.

One of the pilots involved was Ilan Ramon who trained as Israel's first astronaut but was killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

Two weeks after the Osirak attack Israel admitted it had the capability of developing its own nuclear weapons.

And in 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician was found guilty of espionage after he told a British newspaper, the Sunday Times, that Israel was secretly building atomic bombs.

French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac cultivated France's special relationship with Iraq during the 1970s to maintain an influence in a region dominated by Anglo-Saxons and boost trade links with the oil-rich nation.

He led the universal condemnation of Israel's attack on Osirak.

Then, 22 years later - as French president - Mr Chirac was vehemently against the USA and Britain going to war with Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction.


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