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Was Israeli raid a dry run for attack on Iran? by Peter Beaumont

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Editor's Note:

Mystery surrounds last week's air foray into Syrian 
territory. The Observer's Foreign Affairs Editor 
attempts to unravel the truth behind Operation 
Orchard and allegations of nuclear subterfuge. 

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Was Israeli raid a dry run for attack on Iran? - 
by Peter Beaumont 

The head of Israel's airforce, Major-General Eliezer 
Shkedi, was visiting a base in the coastal city of 
Herziliya last week. For the 50-year-old general, also 
the head of Israel's Iran Command, which would fight a 
war with Tehran if ordered, it was a morale-boosting 
affair, a meet-and-greet with pilots and navigators who 
had flown during last summer's month-long war against 
Lebanon. The journalists who had turned out in large 
numbers were there for another reason: to question Shkedi 
about a mysterious air raid that happened this month, 
codenamed 'Orchard', carried out deep in Syrian territory 
by his pilots. 

Shkedi ignored all questions. It set a pattern for the 
days to follow as he and Israel's politicians and officials 
maintained a steely silence, even when the questions came 
from the visiting French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner.
Those journalists who thought of reporting the story were 
discouraged by the threat of Israel's military censor. 

But the rumours were in circulation, not just in Israel 
but in Washington and elsewhere. In the days that follow-
ed, the sketchy details of the raid were accompanied by 
contradictory claims even as US and British officials 
admitted knowledge of the raid. The New York Times 
described the target of the raid as a nuclear site being 
run in collaboration with North Korean technicians. Others 
reported that the jets had hit either a Hizbollah convoy, 
a missile facility or a terrorist camp. 

Amid the confusion there were troubling details that chimed 
uncomfortably with the known facts. Two detachable tanks 
from an Israeli fighter were found just over the Turkish 
border. According to Turkish military sources, they 
belonged to a Raam F15I - the newest generation of Israeli 
long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km 
when equipped with the drop tanks. This would enable them 
to reach targets in Iran, leading to speculation that it 
was an 'operation rehearsal' for a raid on Tehran's nuclear 

Finally, however, at the week's end, the first few tangible 
details were beginning to emerge about Operation Orchard 
from a source involved in the Israeli operation. 

They were sketchy, but one thing was absolutely clear. Far 
from being a minor incursion, the Israeli overflight of 
Syrian airspace through its ally, Turkey, was a far more 
major affair involving as many as eight aircraft, including 
Israel's most ultra-modern F-15s and F-16s equipped with 
Maverick missiles and 500lb bombs. Flying among the Israeli 
fighters at great height, The Observer can reveal, was an 
ELINT - an electronic intelligence gathering aircraft. 

What was becoming clear by this weekend amid much 
scepticism, largely from sources connected with the 
administration of President George Bush, was the nature 
of the allegation, if not the facts. 

In a series of piecemeal leaks from US officials that gave 
the impression of being co-ordinated, a narrative was laid 
out that combined nuclear skulduggery and the surviving 
members of the 'axis of evil': Iran, North Korea and Syria. 

It also combined a series of neoconservative foreign policy 
concerns: that North Korea was not being properly monitored 
in the deal struck for its nuclear disarmament and was off-
loading its material to Iran and Syria, both of which in 
turn were helping to rearm Hizbollah. 

Underlying all the accusations was a suggestion that 
recalled the bogus intelligence claims that led to the war 
against Iraq: that the three countries might be collaborat-
ing to supply an unconventional weapon to Hizbollah. 

It is not only the raid that is odd but also, ironically, 
the deliberate air of mystery surrounding it, given 
Israel's past history of bragging about similar raids, 
including an attack on an Iraqi reactor. It was a secrecy 
so tight, in fact, that even as the Israeli aircrew climbed 
into the cockpits of their planes they were not told the 
nature of the target they were being ordered to attack. 

According to an intelligence expert quoted in the 
Washington Post who spoke to aircrew involved in the raid, 
the target of the attack, revealed only to the pilots while 
they were in the air, was a northern Syrian facility that 
was labelled as an agricultural research centre on the 
Euphrates river, close to the Turkish border. 

According to this version of events, a North Korean ship, 
officially carrying a cargo of cement, docked three days 
before the raid in the Syrian port of Tartus. That ship 
was also alleged to be carrying nuclear equipment. 

It is an angle that has been pushed hardest by the neo-
conservative hawk and former US ambassador to the United 
Nations, John Bolton. But others have entered the fray, 
among them the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, 
who, without mentioning Syria by name, suggested to Fox 
television that the raid was linked to stopping un-
conventional weapons proliferation. 


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Most explicit of all was Andrew Semmel, acting deputy 
assistant Secretary of State for nuclear non-proliferation 
policy, who, speaking in Rome yesterday, insisted that 
'North Koreans were in Syria' and that Damascus may have 
had contacts with 'secret suppliers' to obtain nuclear 

'There are indicators that they do have something going on 
there,' he said. 'We do know that there are a number of 
foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know 
that there may have been contact between Syria and some 
secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything 
transpired remains to be seen. 

'So good foreign policy, good national security policy, 
would suggest that we pay very close attention to that,' 
he said. 'We're watching very closely. Obviously, the 
Israelis were watching very closely.' 

But despite the heavy inference, no official so far has 
offered an outright accusation. Instead they have hedged 
their claims in ifs and buts, assiduously avoiding the 
term 'weapons of mass destruction'. 

There has also been deep scepticism about the claims from 
other officials and former officials familiar with both 
Syria and North Korea. They have pointed out that an almost 
bankrupt Syria has neither the economic nor the industrial 
base to support the kind of nuclear programme described, 
adding that Syria has long rejected going down the nuclear 

Others have pointed out that North Korea and Syria in any 
case have also had a long history of close links - making 
meaningless the claim that the North Koreans are in Syria. 

The scepticism was reflected by Bruce Reidel, a former 
intelligence official at the Brookings Institution's Saban 
Centre, quoted in the Post. 'It was a substantial Israeli 
operation, but I can't get a good fix on whether the target 
was a nuclear thing,' adding that there was 'a great deal 
of scepticism that there's any nuclear angle here' and 
instead the facility could have been related to chemical 
or biological weapons. 

The opaqueness surrounding the nature of what may have been 
hit in Operation Orchard has been compounded by claims that 
US knowledge over the alleged 'agricultural site' has come 
not from its own intelligence and satellite imaging, but 
from material supplied to Washington from Tel Aviv over 
the last six months, material that has been restricted 
to just a few senior officials under the instructions of 
national security adviser Stephen Hadley, leaving many in 
the intelligence community uncertain of its veracity. 

Whatever the truth of the allegations against Syria - and 
Israel has a long history of employing complex deceptions 
in its operations - the message being delivered from Tel 
Aviv is clear: if Syria's ally, Iran, comes close to 
acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the world fails to prevent 
it, either through diplomatic or military means, then 
Israel will stop it on its own. 

So Operation Orchard can be seen as a dry run, a raid using 
the same heavily modified long-range aircraft, procured 
specifically from the US with Iran's nuclear sites in mind. 
It reminds both Iran and Syria of the supremacy of its 
aircraft and appears to be designed to deter Syria from 
getting involved in the event of a raid on Iran - a 
reminder, if it were required, that if Israel's ground 
forces were humiliated in the second Lebanese war its 
airforce remains potent, powerful and unchallenged. 

And, critically, the raid on Syria has come as speculation 
about a war against Iran has begun to re-emerge after a 
relatively quiet summer. 

With the US keen to push for a third UN Security Council 
resolution authorising a further tranche of sanctions 
against Iran, both London and Washington have increased 
the heat by alleging that they are already fighting 'a 
proxy war' with Tehran in Iraq. 

Perhaps more worrying are the well-sourced claims from 
conservative thinktanks in the US that there have been 
'instructions' by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney 
to roll out support for a war against Iran. 

In the end there is no mystery. 


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