Weapons of mass destruction? Look for them in the rubble of Iraq’s al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility, destroyed by Israeli flyers 23 years ago.
After attaining power, writes Los Angeles–based journalist and screenwriter Claire, Saddam Hussein set about making Iraq a nuclear power. But early on, “for all Hussein’s obsession with control, it was clear that Iraq had been taken for a ride by the superpowers.” The Soviets, for instance, sold Hussein a leaky reactor in the early 1960s, for which the Soviets charged by the ton and layered on all kinds of useless and ancient hardware. Hussein had his revenge: he ordered his scientists to figure out how to develop weapons-grade materials from the reactor, then expelled the Soviets in 1972 and stopped payment. Claire marvels at the ingenuity of those scientists, among them Khidir Hamza, who worried about “his part in enabling Saddam’s ambitious plans to become a nuclear state” but still figured that the achievement of building the Arab world’s first nuclear weapon would look good on his résumé. Enter France, which sold Hussein a better reactor and helped speed the process along. Enter Israel, which had no intention of sharing nuclear-power status with a hostile neighbor; it launched a daring air raid on Iraq that involved crossing over hundreds of miles of desert only a hundred or so feet above the ground. The pilots, among them Israeli’s first astronaut, passed directly above Jordanian King Hussein’s yacht; fortunately, he didn’t pick up the phone to call Baghdad, and the raid went on as planned, destroying the Iraqi nuclear plant with letter-perfect precision and making the French technicians there very glum indeed—as well as displeasing US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who called the raid “reckless” and briefly suspended arms sales to Israel.
Drawing on interviews with the Israeli pilots involved, Claire’s well-paced account is of interest to aerial-warfare buffs, and a useful if minor footnote to the war against Hussein.