The Air Force F-16 pilot who led the attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor 28 years ago has for the first time publicly accused his second-in-command of cutting in front of him to be first to bomb the target and claim glory for the kill. Colonel (res.) Ze'ev Raz says that the account of the historic Operation Opera, in June 1981, as told by the number two, General Amos Yadlin, now Military Intelligence chief, is distorted and misleading.
Some of the pilots who participated in the operation, however, disagree with Raz and say Yadlin's maneuver was justified.
Raz commanded Squadron 117, the first to receive F-16 fighter planes, and led the IAF's first delegation sent to the United States to study the new fighter planes before they arrived in Israel.
When the IAF started planning the operation to bomb the Osirak reactor, Raz was one of the first to know about it and took an active part in the planning process. The attack was carried out by eight airplanes and Amos Yadlin, then a captain and one of Raz's deputies, was supposed to fly alongside him.
Former senior Air Force officers say Raz and Yadlin had a history of rivalry and grudges. Aerial photographs of the attack area, which were used to plan the mission, clearly show a large island in Bahar al-Malakh, a lake some 90 kilometers west of Osirak. This island was the squadron's IP, or initial point which Raz, as mission commander, would use to make a final correction to the navigation instruments at the start of the bombing run.
As they approached the lake they could not see the island, which was covered by water due to heavy rains, making it difficult for Raz to navigate. Just before entering the bombing run he made a wider turn than originally planned.
"As a result, we were a little too far to the left of track," he told Haaretz. "I said on the radio, 'Number One entering a turn,' during which Amos managed to cut in front of me."
Thus Yadlin was the first to drop two 1-ton bombs on the reactor, while Raz released his bombs second.
Raz said that Yadlin should have followed him in the same direction and dropped the bombs after him, while covering him from the back against an attack by enemy planes or surface-to-air missiles.
"One of the first things I heard on the radio after the bombing was Yadlin saying he couldn't see me. I didn't understand how such an experienced pilot, who was supposed to be between me and the setting sun, couldn't see me. And then I saw him to my west. You don't deal with such trivia when you're over Baghdad and there can be missiles and MiGs around," Raz said.
One of the pilots who participated in the operation said that the pilots were under immense pressure, and it was possible that Yadlin decided he had a better chance of hitting the target, as sometimes is the case.
But Raz is convinced that Yadlin planned this maneuver in advance. "He tried it out in one of the drills ahead of the operation. He cut in and suddenly I see his plane's belly. I was amazed, but didn't bring it up in the debriefing. Afterward, when we were alone, I asked him what that was and he just smiled," Raz said.
"I found a note from Yadlin on my desk, praising me for planning and leading the operation," Raz recounted. "... he wrote - 'I checked the film [from the airplane's cameras], I'm the one who dropped on the target first, never mind, I deserve something too.' That's when I understood why he cut me off and why I lost eye contact with him after that. I'm certain he meant to enter history as the first to bomb the reactor," Raz said.
The two pilots had another contretemps a year later in a special squadron debriefing of the operation with dozens of young pilots. Raz learned then that some of the pilots who participated in the attack had broken security orders. "It transpired that four of the eight pilots told their wives, including Yadlin. I reacted sharply, and Yadlin said in front of everyone 'clearly you didn't tell your wife, we know how you live with her.'"
Many details of the attack and the pilots who participated in it were banned for publication for security reasons for 20 years after the attack. In recent years, however, several books and articles have been published about the operation, some presenting Yadlin in a much more positive light than Raz's version.
Raz, who received a citation for leading the attack, is certain that Yadlin has a part in the publications indicating that Raz was confused before the bomb run, and that Yadlin was the central figure in the mission and the first to bomb the reactor.
The book "Tamuz in Flames" by journalist and Prime Minister Menachem Begin's media advisor Shlomo Nakdimon, was written with the defense establishment and Air Force's cooperation, and is seen as the "official" version of the operation. Nakdimon writes that Yadlin "preceded" Raz and was "written down in Air Force history as the first to bomb the reactor." Nakdimon does not say that Raz was delayed because of a navigation problem.
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