Israeli planes yesterday bombed and destroyed an atomic reactor near Baghdad that would have enabled Iraq to manufacture nuclear weapons, the Israeli Government announced today.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified the action as having been essential to prevent the ”evil” President Saddam Hussein of Iraq from attacking Israeli cities with atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
The official Israeli announcement of the raid said that none of the foreign specialists known to have been working at the facility had been hurt. The number of Iraqi casualties was not known.
(France, which was building the reactor with Italy, announced that a French technician, identified only as Mr. Chausspied, had been killed in the raid. Page A7.) Enriched Uranium Reported at Site
At least 25 pounds of enriched uranium were reported to have been on the site. The Israeli pilots, all of whom returned safely, according to the announcement, were said to have seen secondary explosions, indicating the presence of a large quantity of inflammable or explosive material. There was nothing left of the plant, they said.
(The French Foreign Ministry said that there was no nuclear fuel in the facility at the time of the attack. It said that the main reactor, which uses highly enriched uranium fuel suitable for atomic weapons, had been ”seriously damaged.” A smaller French-supplied reactor in the same complex, as well a Soviet-made reactor, escaped damage, the ministry said.)
Mr. Begin said that the $275 million facility was near completion and was scheduled to go into operation within several months. After that, the official Israeli announcement stated, an attack on it would have blanketed Baghdad with radiation.
”Under such circumstances,” the statement said, ”no government of Israel could contemplate bombing the reactor.” U.S. Not Told in Advance
The raid was immediately condemned by the United States, which Mr. Begin said had not been notified in advance. A State Department spokesman in Washington denounced it as ”a very serious development and a source of utmost concern.” Washington has been trying to improve relations with Baghdad.
The Iraqi press agency, which did not report the attack until after the Israeli announcement, said that nine aircraft had been involved. American military analysts said that the bombing was apparently done by American-made F-4 Phantoms escorted by F-15’s.
There were no indications of any preparations for retaliation by Iraq, which has long been technically in a state of war with Israel but is also tangled in a sputtering war with Iran.
The successful Israeli raid was expected to give a further stimulus to the campaign of Mr. Begin, who faces a close race for re-election in three weeks. His major opponent, Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, was informed of plans for the attack three months ago, Mr. Begin said, but expressed reservations about its advisability.
The reactor, known as the Osirak plant, was damaged last Sept. 30 in the second week of the Iraqi-Iranian war by unmarked jets. Iran denied being responsible for the attack, and some reports, never confirmed, attributed the raid to Israelis. The result was an interruption in work at the plant, and foreign specialists, including French, Italian and Brazilian experts, returned to continue their tasks there only several months ago.
Israel had worked on the plans for the raid for several months, Mr. Begin said. The attack was timed for a Sunday ”on the assumption that the 100 to 150 foreign experts employed at the reactor would be absent on the Christian day of rest,” according to the announcement. ”This assumption proved to have been correct,” it said. ”No foreign specialists were hurt.”
Although France had insisted that the reactor was intended only for research, Israel said that ”from sources whose reliability is beyond any doubt, we learned that this reactor, despite its camouflage, is designed to produce atomic bombs.
”The target for such bombs would be Israel,” it said. ”This was clearly announced by the ruler of Iraq. After the Iranians had inflicted slight damage on the reactor, Saddam Hussein stressed that the Iranians had attacked the target in vain, since it was being constructed against Israel alone.” First Strike Feared by Israel
A critical motivation for the Israeli attack appeared to be the conviction here that the Iraqi regime could not be deterred from a first strike with nuclear weapons, even by the rational calculation that Iraq might be similarly hit.
Israel has denied possessing nuclear weapons. But the Central Intelligence Agency released reports several years ago stating that Israel had obtained uranium ”by clandestine means,” and concluding: ”We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons.”
”There is no question,” said Yuval Ne’eman, an Israeli physicist, ”that the existence of this reactor represented a real threat, especially to Israel but I would say also to several other countries in the Middle East.
”The removal of this threat is a good thing in itself,” he said. ”I think that there was no other way, because with a country such as Iraq under its present leadership, you couldn’t even plan for a balance of fear. Suppose they would have reached the stage where they would have had their weapons, and suppose Israel would then have done the same. Even that would not have assured our safety because this kind of regime doesn’t care even about its own people, so we would have been exposed, and there’s no question that we would have been target No. 1.” Iraqis Have Delivery System
He estimated that it would take Iraq about three years to rebuild the reactor. Before the facility was destroyed, experts believed that Iraq could have had nuclear weapons by 1985. A delivery system, in the form of Soviet-made ground-to ground missiles, is already in Baghdad’s possession.
Israel obviously felt itself pushing against a deadline. ”From the most reliable sources,” the Government statement said, ”we learned of two dates when the reactor would be completed and put into operation. One: the beginning of July 1981; two: the beginning of September 1981.
”In other words, within a short period of time the Iraqi reactor would have been operational and ‘hot.’ Under such circumstances, no government of Israel could contemplate bombing the reactor. Such an attack would have brought about a massive radioactive lethal fallout over the city of Baghdad, and tens of thousands of its innocent residents would have been hurt.”
Prime Minister Begin said that in that instance, ”we would have had to sit by passively from afar, knowing that the Iraqis were creating atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima in the Second World War, and three, four or five such atomic bombs in the hands of such an evil person as Saddam Hussein, who with his own hands murdered the best of his people in order to control his country, it wouldn’t be beyond him to use these bombs on concentrations of our population.”
The Government statement, which was issued after news of the raid was disclosed on Radio Amman, Jordan, condemned France and Italy.