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A 1992 Israeli plot to kill Hussein is reported

Disclosure angers military and ignites questions on policy

JERUSALEM -- Israel's military tracked Saddam Hussein's movements for months and plotted to assassinate him while he attended the funeral of his uncle in Tikrit in 1992, according to reports in two Israeli newspapers yesterday that drew sharp criticism from the army's top brass.

 

The reports contained the type of operational details usually censored in Israel, including that members of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit planned to reach Iraq by helicopter and kill Hussein with a guided missile. The mission was scrapped after a botched training exercise left five soldiers dead.

The plot had been rumored for years but officially suppressed by the Israeli military. But last weekend's capture of Hussein by US soldiers in Iraq prompted renewed interest by the news media.

Hours after the newspapers Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth went on sale with blazing headlines yesterday morning, Israeli army chief Moshe Ya'alon described the reports as "reckless." Other officials and commentators focused on the assassination plot itself, calling it irresponsible and suggesting it could have ignited a new Middle East war.

Beyond the immediate intrigue of the revelation, the report and the criticism it spawned trained a light on the complex relationship between the Israeli media and the military in a country almost constantly beset by war. While Israeli journalists are required to submit sensitive stories to a military censor, the reports published yesterday appeared to contain details that the censor had not authorized.

"I think it's natural that journalists would feel a certain loyalty to the armed forces in a place embroiled by conflict," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who teaches on media topics. But Wolfsfeld said journalists had shown a greater willingness to test the limits of censorship over the years and had managed to erode the status of the military censor.

Military officials said Maariv and Yedioth asked for permission early this week to publish that Israel had planned to assassinate the Iraqi dictator in 1992, citing Hussein's capture by American troops as reason to relax the 11-year-old ban on the story. After consulting with other officials, the censor, an active duty brigadier general, agreed to release the information but not the operational details included in the two stories, according to a statement by the censor's office.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the assassination plan was hatched in 1991, after Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the first Gulf war. The paper said some security officials thought killing Hussein would restore whatever deterrence against Arab states Israel had lost by not responding to the Scud attacks. Others in the military worried that Hussein might use chemical warheads the next time he ordered a missile strike on the Jewish state.

The newspaper said Israel knew look-alikes were making nearly all of Hussein's public appearances, but intelligence officials learned that his uncle was gravely ill and concluded that Hussein probably would attend the funeral in Tikrit himself.

According to the plan, a small group of commandos would land near Tikrit and split up. Two or three of the soldiers would get close to the funeral procession and mark the target with lasers. Other troops would fire a guided missile at Hussein from several miles away.

"These are details that should never have been made public," said Uri Sagi, a retired general who served as head of military intelligence at the time. "They give away our methods of gathering information and planning and our capabilities. It's very damaging for us."

Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister at the time, sanctioned Sayeret Matkal to plan the assassination and train for it but held off on authorizing the attack.

The military carried out a run-through of the raid in November 1992 at the Tzeelim training ground in southern Israel, with six soldiers acting as targets -- Hussein and his bodyguards. But when the commandos received the order to fire, they let off a real missile instead of a training one, according to Yedioth, killing five of the six soldiers. The stand-in for Hussein sustained light wounds.

Top army commanders were at Tzeelim to watch the exercise, including Ehud Barak, who was army chief at the time and who went on to become prime minister. Their presence led to speculation about the nature of the exercise, including the possibility that the commandos were training to kill Hussein.

But according to Maariv, military officials leaked a bogus story to the Israeli press that the target was actually Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Wolfsfeld, the political scientist, said the assassination plot was consistent with a longstanding policy in the Jewish state of hunting down Arabs who target Israelis. But other commentators said the operation had all the look of a fiasco.

"You need more than a measure of megalomania, a lot of imagination, courage, pride, and short-sightedness" to plan such an operation, political columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv.

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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