Ya'alon: Publicizing Plan to Eliminate Saddam 'Irresponsible'

Publicizing the Israel Defense Forces' 1992 plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein is "irresponsible," IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said Tuesday.

Israeli media reported Tuesday that Sayeret Matkal, the IDF General Staff's elite special-operations force, trained in 1992 to assassinate Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a daring operation that would have landed commandos in Iraq and fired sophisticated missiles at him during a funeral.

The attempt was called off after five soldiers were killed during a training accident.

"There are things that should remain internal for security reasons, and shouldn't be revealed to the whole world in an irresponsible manner," Ya'alon said at the Herzliya Conference.

Although the foreign media has previously reported on the cancelled operation, the IDF censor allowed Israeli media to report on the affair only after Saddam's arrest Monday.

Labor legislator Ephraim Sneh, who was a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in 1992, confirmed the army was preparing to kill Saddam, but refused to discuss details of the operation. He said late-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had ordered the operation.

"The credit should be given to the prime minister because it was his courage to approve this operation," Sneh told The Associated Press.

"Like in Entebbe and other daring operations, it was Rabin who took this decision," Sneh added, referring to an Israeli operation in Uganda 1976 that freed hostages from a hijacked airplane.

The radio said the troops were volunteers, who understood that they were to "fight to the death" and to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured.

The Israeli military put together the plan to kill Saddam in retaliation for Iraq's firing 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf war, and under the assessment that the Iraqi leadeer posed a continuing threat to the Jewish state.

However, the plan was never brought before the government for final approval. The paper said critics warned that whether it succeeded or failed, it could have triggered Iraqi retaliation in the form of a biological attack.

Israeli military intelligence determined that Saddam himself, and not one of his doubles, would attend the funeral of his father-in-law in Saddam's home town, and the assassination could be carried out there. The relative was seriously ill at the time.

The commandos would set up a few kilometers from the cemetery and fire two specially designed missiles that would home in on Saddam, who wore a lighter color military uniform from other soldiers. The custom-made missiles were named "Obelisk," the paper said.

After the assassination, the commandos were to be flown out of Iraq on an Israeli plane that would take off from a temporary airfield build in Iraq, the paper said.

The training mishap occurred during one of the final run-throughs on Nov. 5, 1992, at the large Tzeelim training base in the southern Negev. The five soldiers, also members of the elite unit, were playing the part of the targets, Saddam Hussein and his bodyguards, and the commandos were to fire a dummy missile at them. By mistake, a live missile was substituted, and the five were killed. Six others were wounded.

The mishap led to cancellation of the assassination attempt. Maariv reported that in fact, as predicted by Israeli intelligence, Saddam himself attended the funeral where he was to have been targeted.

The top commanders of the Israeli military were at the base to watch the exercise, including the then-chief of staff, Ehud Barak, later Israel's prime minister. The fact of his presence came out a few days after the mishap, leading to rumors about the real mission, including the possibility that it was aimed at Saddam.

Israeli military censorship clamped a tight lid on the accident and the purpose of the training, banning publication of the details. After two foreign newspapers printed stories that the target was Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Israeli government suspended the press credentials of the papers' reporters in Israel, charging that they had broken censorship rules.

Maariv reported Tuesday that the Nasrallah story was a government plant to distract reporters from the real target - Saddam - and the suspension of the reporters' press credentials was part of the deception.

The operation was called off due to an accident at the Tze'elim training base in the south of the country, when a missile fired by accident killed five soldiers preparing for the operation, the radio said.

According to the operation plan, the soldiers were supposed to land in Iraq, ambush Saddam's convoy attending the funeral of the then-Iraqi president's uncle, and fire two missiles at the entourage.