January 17 1999
Mossad plot to assassinate SaddamBy Uzi Mahnaimi, Amman
ISRAEL has developed an elaborate plan to kill Saddam Hussein during a visit to his mistress.
Special forces from the elite Unit 262, which rescued hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, have been trained to kill the Iraqi dictator with guided missiles, minutes after he leaves the woman's home.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and a former member of 262, considered ordering the operation on the eve of last month's American and British airstrikes on Iraq, according to military sources.
He backed down after senior ministers warned against an assassination attempt. Its chance of success was rated at only one in five by military intelligence, whose officers have opposed it.
The window of opportunity discovered by Mossad was small but tantalising. Saddam's arrival at his mistress's village in northwestern Iraq was difficult to predict, but his schedule rarely varied once he was there.
The Iraqi president usually arrived around dusk. After visiting relatives in the area, he would spend the night at the mistress's home. In the morning he would go to a secret military site nearby.
Mossad, Israel's main intelligence agency, had a source which claimed to know in advance when Saddam would see the woman. If the accounts of Saddam's routine were correct, then for 15-20 minutes between leaving her and reaching the safety of the military site, he was vulnerable. Mossad believed that was enough to attempt assassination.
In intelligence terms, the information was gold dust. As many a would-be assassin has found to his cost, the most difficult part of any plan to kill the Iraqi leader is to find out where he will be at any given moment.
Saddam guards the secrecy of his movements with meticulous care. They are known only to those in his inner circle, most of them family members. At night, dinner is cooked for him at more than a dozen safe houses, and Saddam chooses his place of rest only at the last moment. He also uses doubles to spread confusion.
To confirm the quality of the intelligence, a Mossad agent infiltrated Iraq and surveyed the location. He returned to Israel with good quality close-up photographs of the dictator. Mossad experts confirmed that they portrayed Saddam.
The plotting began. General Amiram Levine, who was appointed deputy head of Mossad last summer, persuaded Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, that the intelligence was sound.
As Netanyahu's former commanding officer in the army, Levine had the confidence of the prime minister. Netanyahu set in motion a plan to use the information to wipe out Saddam.
The decision, Israeli sources said, was made for two reasons. Under growing pressure from the United States and in a running dispute with United Nations weapons inspectors, Saddam was an increasingly belligerent threat to Israel. The Iraqi president had fired Scud missiles on Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf war.
In addition, Netanyahu faced mounting criticism at home and the success of such a spectacular operation would clearly boost his fading political fortunes.
The idea of killing Saddam has long been on the Israeli agenda. An operation codenamed Bramble had already been planned to kill Saddam on the night of November 7, 1992.
Yitzhak Rabin, the then prime minister, and Ehud Barak, chief of staff at the time, authorised that particular operation. Barak, now head of the Labour party and a candidate for prime minister in the elections scheduled for May 17, persuaded the cautious Rabin that Mossad and Israeli special forces had the ability to pinpoint the Iraqi leader.
On November 5, a final rehearsal took place at Tze'elim in the Negev desert. Barak, his deputy, the head of military intelligence and other senior officers gathered to watch. It was a catastrophe. An officer mistakenly used a live missile and five soldiers who were representing Saddam and his entourage were killed. The operation was cancelled.
The idea, however, remained alive and the order to revive it was given early last year. Preparations moved into higher gear with the appointment of Levine as deputy. With the information from Iraq, detailed planning for a new operation to assassinate Saddam - codenamed Siah Atad II (Bramble II) - began. The soldiers of Unit 262 trained for months.
Details of the planned operation have been obtained by The Sunday Times. Once Mossad was tipped off that Saddam was on his way to his mistress, about 40 soldiers, the main operational group, would fly to Iraq on Hercules C-130 planes, landing in a remote location. The Israelis have identified an air corridor through which they believe a C130 can fly below Iraqi radar range.
The group would then divide into two units. The first, incorporating up to 10 soldiers, would move to within 200 to 300 metres of the site where Mossad says that Saddam can be found.
The main group of about 30 soldiers would wait about six miles away, equipped with a special Israeli-developed television-guided missile, codenamed Midras (Hebrew for footstep).
The forward group would target Saddam, following him on a video monitor that would be connected to identical equipment held by the main group. At the right moment, the main group would fire three Midras missiles at Saddam and his entourage.
After firing at the Iraqi president, and whatever the outcome, the forces would immediately evacuate. "It is a complicated operation which will involve many aircraft in the air," an Israeli air force source said. Israeli sources said the operation was cancelled last month because the schedule for the attack coincided with the American and British bombardment of Iraq and because Ariel Sharon, the foreign minister, and Yitzhak Mordechai, the defence minister refused to give final approval. They apparently doubted the accuracy of Mossad's information.
The commandos were ordered to continue their preparations and remain on standby.
The plan, almost certain to be shelved now that it has been revealed, has been leaked because military intelligence analysts believed the assassination of Saddam would irreparably damage the Middle East peace process and Israel's future relations with Arab countries.
Saddam appears to have survived yet another threat.
- July 1976: Israeli troops raided Entebbe airport in Uganda, freeing 103 mainly Israeli hostages held for a week on an Air France plane by pro-Palestinian hijackers
- April 1988: Abu Jihad, the PLO's military supremo, was shot dead by Israeli commandos near Tunis
- January 1996: Israeli agents killed Yehin Ayyash, the Palestinian master-bomber known as "The Engineer", with radio-controlled explosives in his mobile phone
- July 1973: Mossad agents killed Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter, in Norway. They wrongly thought he was involved in a terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympics
- September 1997: Two agents bungled an attempt to kill Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman by spraying poison in his ear
- November 1998: Two top agents were caught spying on a military base in Cyprus where Russian-made S-300 missiles were to be deployed
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