HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Israeli commandos planned to assassinate Saddam Hussein at his uncle’s funeral after the 1991 Gulf War, but the mission was aborted after five soldiers were killed in training, officials said Tuesday.
Military censors lifted an 11-year-old ban on reporting the plan Monday, allowing newspapers to publish details of the aborted 1992 mission just days after the ousted Iraqi leader was captured by U.S. forces in Iraq.
The plan, meant to retaliate for Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, was shelved after the deaths of five soldiers in a rehearsal of the mission for generals, causing a national scandal.
The plan called for Israeli commandos to be dropped deep in Iraqi territory several kilometers (miles) from a cemetery where Saddam was expected at the funeral of an uncle believed by Israeli military intelligence to be near death.
The soldiers would have fired a specially adapted “smart” missile with a small camera in its nose, allowing them to target Saddam amid a crowd of officials, family members and bodyguards attending the funeral.
“We realized we would have to find something that was emotionally so important to him that he would not send a double,” Major Nadav Zeevi, the former intelligence officer for the mission, told Israel’s Army Radio.
Fearing assassination, Saddam was known to have more than one double.
Zeevi, who was in charge of preparing intelligence information on opportunities to hit Saddam, concluded that the best option was to strike him at the funeral of Saddam’s beloved uncle who was suffering from diabetes and was on his death bed.
“We realized that his (uncle’s) funeral….would be important enough for him (Saddam) to go personally,” Zeevi said.
The plan to kill Saddam was developed after the 1991 Gulf War, when he fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, though the Israeli government never got as far as approving it.
At the time Israel came under intense pressure from its ally Washington not to respond to the Scud attacks for fear of turning the U.S.-led war against Iraq into a wider, Arab-Israeli conflict.
Military analysts have said that undermined Israel’s stature and deterrence capability in the region.
“Israel’s deterrence was seen to have been seriously harmed by its decision not to retaliate for the Scud attacks. Hitting him…was seen as vital strategically,” said one security source, who did not want to be identified.
Israelis were never fully informed about the background to the “Tse’elim-B disaster” # named after the training base in the southern Negev desert where the accident occurred in November 1992.
At the time Israel suspended the press credentials of two foreign correspondents based in Israel, accusing them of breaking censorship for reporting the commandos may have been training to assassinate Saddam.
Officials then would not confirm the veracity of the report.
“The mission would have given a prestigious achievement (to Israel),” military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai told Israel Radio.