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>Israel News Faxx
>JN Jan 23, 2019, Vol. 27, No. 17
When Israel Prepared to Conquer Baghdad
By YnetNews (Analysis)
During the First Gulf War, Israeli political and military leaders found themselves on a
steep learning curve as the country was pounded by Saddam Hussein's Scuds; the lessons
from that experience and the demands of the Americans still resonate, in
particular regarding a devious Iranian plan to strike the Jewish state from Iraq.
The picture painted by the intelligence gathered by Israel and by the United States
Central Command is very worrying. The Iranians, it transpired, have started sending
surface-to-surface missiles to Shiite militias in Iraq. The missiles are meant to be
aimed, among other things, at Israel, to deter it from further attacks on Iranian
facilities in Syria.
It is a cunning Iranian move: missile fire from Iraq would not give Israel just cause to
attack Syria or Lebanon, and it would put the Jewish state in a dilemma. Furthermore, an
attack on Iraq requires coordination with the US, who has already informed Israel that any
military action it takes in Iraq would endanger the lives of Americans protecting the
Baghdad regime. It would also require coordination with neighboring countries such as
Jordan and Saudi Arabia to allow the Israel Air Force warplanes to fly in their airspace.
It's obvious these countries will not openly cooperate with Israel in attacking a
neighboring Arab nation.
This has happened over the past year, and caused the IDF to raise its level of alert. The
Iranians didn't send the missiles as a mere threat, they also intend to use them for a
strike in retaliation or for deterrence.
A different General Staff, no less talented, had to contend with the same questions in the
1990s, and couldn't deliver answers.
The sites in western Iraq where the Iranians might deploy missiles, are in almost the same
area from which the long-range "Al Hussein" Scud missiles were launched at Israel during
the First Gulf War. On January 18, 1991, almost precisely 28 years ago to the day, eight
Al Hussein missiles were launched for the first time from western Iraq toward population
centers in central Israel and the Haifa area. Israel didn't respond that day, and remained
diplomatically paralyzed, with undeveloped military plans, until the end of the US-led
coalition's Operation Desert Storm on February 28.
In total, some 40 missiles were fired from Iraq, most of them at Dan region. Israel didn't
respond, and it is paying the price in psychological deterrence price to this very day.
The enemy learned Israel's Achilles' heel. Even Hamas dares to launch rockets at Tel Aviv
and still remains standing. The Gulf War created the "ethos of restraint," which in the
years that have passed has become a doctrine at which Israel. The historical memory is
that Israel held back and didn't attack due to heavy American pressure. But this is only
half the truth.
The fear: Attack on Dimona .The beginning was actually promising. As early as April 1990,
four months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and nine months before the first missile
was fired at Israel, Israeli intelligence uncovered seven stationary launchers stationed
in western Iraq. In July, initial preparations began for an operation to strike this
apparatus, and then a series of discussions and preparations began for special
opsboth aerial and groundof different scales. But this saga was filled with
zig-zagging. There wasn't a clear worldview, no plan reached a point at which it had
reasonable odds of success, and the diplomatic conditions had not yet ripened. Israel was
running on the spot.
Three weeks after the Iraqi invasion, on August 21, 1990, the IDF General Staff held war
games to examine the different ways to deal with the threats from Iraq. By this point, the
IDF was already on high alert in light of assessments that an all-out regional conflict
would include Israel as well. At the conclusion of the war games, there was talk of
possible missile fire or a potential Iraqi airstrike on strategic targets, such as the
Dimona nculear reactor and major population centers. There was also the assessment that
the Iraqis had the ability to use chemical weapons against one of those strategic targets,
Most of the speakers at the meetinghead by then-IDF chief Dan Shomron, his deputy
Ehud Barak, the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Air
Force Commander Avihu Ben-Nunbelieved that Iraq would try to provoke Israel in order
to draw it into war and dismantle the American coalition with the Arab world. Therefore,
they predicted there would be American pressure on Israel not to take action. Most of
those present agreed that there was room for Israeli restraint regarding the timing, scope
and nature of a potential response, and they all agreed any move should be coordinated
with the Americans.
Shomron's General Staffjust like Gabi Ashkenazi's General Staff, which dealt with
the possibility of a strike on Iran's nuclear project 20 years laterpreferred to
have the Americans solve the problem for Israel. But they weren't confident the Americans
would do the job in a satisfactory manner, so they all agreed that if Iraq launched
missiles at major Israeli population centers, Israel would have no choice but to respond.
Then GOC Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yossi Peled argued that Israel had to respond either
way, even if missiles were only launched at military targets, otherwise it would undermine
Israel's deterrence against the threat of indirect fire in the future. Lipkin-Shahak
addressed the possibility of friction with Jordan in the case of Israeli airstrikes on
Baghdad, and recommended Israel "examine other painful responses, such as hitting Iraqi
The IDF chief assessed that the Israeli military did not have the ability to destroy the
Iraqi Air Force, and it also did not have the ability to completely prevent or stop
missile fire at Israel. Therefore, he said, the top priority for the military would be how
to restore Israeli deterrence, and not how to remove the threat. In other words, deter
Iraq from further missile fire.
"If Israeli population centers are hit," the IDF chief said at the conclusion of the war
games, "Israel will pound government and strategic sites in Baghdad and military targets
in western Iraq, to send the Iraqis an unequivocal message: if the missile fire doesn't
stop, we will hit population centers in Baghdad."
The war games exposed the fact the IDF did not have a concrete view on when to use force
or indeed have an operational plan in the face of the threat of missile fire toward Israel
from western Iraq. At the time, the IDF was prepared to fight off two Iraqi units that
were supposed to join an eastern front against Israelone from the direction of Syria
and the other from the direction of Jordan. But it didn't have an effective plan to deal
with missiles or long-range rockets. The only plan the military had when the crisis
erupted was meant to deal with Syrian chemical weapons, and the IDF top brass were now
trying to adjust it for the existing conditions in western Iraq.
But that plan was not ready either. From the moment it was presented in late 1989 and
until the end of the First Gulf War, it remained unclear who would command this operation,
which combined the Israel Air Force, the Ground Forces and the Intelligence Directorate. A
bitter argument was waged between the Air Force and special ops HQ (which at the time was
under the command Maj. Gen. Doron Rubin). The decisions made by the IDF chief, his deputy,
and the head of the Operations Division didn't help settle the dispute. Conversely, a
similar dispute is currently ongoing between the Depth Corps, which inherited the
headquarters for special operations, and the Air Force.
But these operations combining Special Forces and the Air Force, which were planned for
western Iraq, were secondary in their importance. The preferable option was reinforcing
deterrence through painful punishment of the Iraqi government and its citizens should
missiles actually be launched at Israeli population centers. Clues for this can be seen in
General Staff and government discussions from those days.
The first missile landed in Tel Aviv on January 18, 1991, at 2am. Four hours later,
then-defense minister Moshe Arens held consultations in his office. IDF chief Shomron
recommended attacking Baghdad. The Air Force commander also spoke of a significant strike;
otherwise there was no point in bothering. The deputy IDF chief recommended action on two
fronts the rocket fire and punitive measures but stressed that Israel was
entirely dependent on the Americans to get real-time intelligence from Baghdad. The Air
Force commander also stressed the need to coordinate with the Americans, asked permission
to carry out a sortie over western Iraq to take photos and gather intelligence, and
proposed that Israel carry out both the punitive measures and the attack on the launchers.
At 7:45 a.m., the defense minister convened another meeting. The Air Force commander
presented the plans for the intelligence sortie that very afternoon. He also presented
three plans for special operations in western Iraq. "It turns out the Americans were
unable in their first strike to destroy the entire Iraqi defense apparatus," said Ben-Nun.
"Therefore I recommend taking a neighborhood in the city of Ramadi, which is west of
Baghdad, and wiping it out with 80 tons of bombs." The Navy commander, Maj. Gen. Micha
Ram, had another suggestion: "Let's sink four Iraqi merchant ships." The head of the IAF's
Air Group, Brig. Gen. Amir Nachumi, said that "if Israel doesn't respond, the Iraqis will
try to hit us with chemical warfare."
That day, at 3 p.m., it appeared that the coordination with the Americans was
unsuccessful, and the intelligence sortie was postponed to the following day. That
evening, the Americans informed Israel they were willing to immediately provide it with
two Patriot batteries to brign down the Iraqi missiles. Major General Thomas R. Olsen, a
representative of the United States Central Command (Centcom) landed in Israel the next
day with satellite images of western Iraq, which was supposed to give the Israelis a sense
of cooperation. But the photos were taken a month prior and not in real time. During
Olsen's stay in Israel, four missiles were launched at the Dan regionfurther proof
the American activity in western Iraq was ineffective.
Soon after the second missile launch, at 9 a.m. on January 19, the defense minister
convened a meeting. He gave an update about his conversation with his American
counterpart, then-defense secretary Dick Cheney, during which Arens raised Israel's
request to take intelligence photos during the day and act in the evening.
The Air Force commander once again presented a plan for an intelligence sortie in the
afternoon, and again the Americans didn't cooperate, claiming they had no control over the
Arab nations that the Israel Air Force would have to fly over on its way to Iraq. Arens,
Shomron and Barak agreed that action must be taken so the Americans would have no choice
but to agreeeven if it entailed shooting down Arab planes on the way. Arens
concluded the discussion, saying: "First western Iraq, then we'll go for Baghdad."
At 10 a.m., the Air Force commander presented the IDF chief with his plans of action in
western Iraq. Dan Shomron argued Israel had to "get a foot in the door." Meaning: Israel
had to do somethingbe it an intelligence sortie or an attack, even a symbolic
oneto try and deter the enemy.
At 10:45 a.m., the IDF chief gave the Air Force commander the green light "to prepare for
a violent intelligence sortie in western Iraq. If the planes identify a relevant target,
like a Scud missile launcher, they are authorized to attack." At 11.a.m., the defense
minister approved the plan. At 2.p.m., the sortie was supposed to get underway.
But then, at the very same forum that approved the plan, the defense officials started
faltering. Arens received an update that then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had spoken to
US President George H.W. Bush, who told him he had been unsuccessful in reaching
understandings with Saudi Arabia and Jordan about Israeli operations in Iraq. At 12 p.m.,
the defense minister asked the IDF chief to change the flight path of the sortie. In light
of the change, the IDF chief reached the conclusion the sortie could take place that day.
At 12:30 p m , Arens convened another meeting. The Air Force commander informed the forum
that the intelligence sortie would not be carried out that day. By this point, the
enthusiasm among the senior ranks of the IDF for any kind of operation in Iraq had
dropped. Everyone was talking about the possibility of an entanglement with Jordan,
leading it to join the war. At 4:30 p.m., Shamir ended the charade and gave the order:
"Israel will not respond. We will discuss this again near the end of the war."
This dynamic of zig-zagging and quickly switching from enthusiasm to weariness, which in
reality stemmed from a lack of preparedness, was present until the very end of the crisis.
The military itself didn't understand what it wanted; it began with plans for small
commando operations, moved on to extensive preparations to conquer western Iraq using
hundreds of troops who would remain in the field for days on end, and ended with nothing.
The issue of punitive measures came up again in a situation assessment by the General
Staff on January 21. All of the speakers pointed to the inabilityboth by Israel and
the USto eliminate the surface-to-surface missile threat on Israel, and recommended
patiently monitoring further developments. Maj. Gen. Yoram "Yaya" Yair, who was the
commander of the 91st "Galilee" Division, spoke about retaliatory and deterrence
operations to stop the missile fire, and proposed a plan to destroy two dams on the Tigris
River, which must have been a contingency plan. Destroying the dams would lead to
extensive flooding and grave damages to populated areas in Iraq. But the Air Force
commander had reservations due to operational limitations, and the proposal was scrapped.
As far as we know, this plan was first brought up in discussions held at the Defense
Ministry even before the fighting began. On October 19, 1990, Arens requested an
examination of the option of attacking dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq.
The Intelligence Directorate examined the ramifications of destroying two of the three
dams: Haditha, Saddam (now known as the Mosul Dam), and Samarra. At the same time, the
head of the IDF's history department, Col. (res.) Benny Michelson, was required to prepare
a report on the ramifications of the British attack on the Ruhr valley dams in Germany in
The attack of the dams on the Tigris, which was rejected on January 21, 1991, was brought
up again for discussion on February 10 by the head of the Operations Division. By that
point, the Americans had already destroyed most of the relevant targets, and Israel had no
choice but to settle for the dams as almost the last realistic option it had left to
restore its deterrence. At the end of the discussion, it was decided that the MID would
gather information about seven dams in Iraq, and the Air Force would present the head of
the Operations Division with operational plans of attack by February 19nine days
later. These decisions were made despite the fact two and a half weeks earlier, the Air
Force commander stated he did not have the ability to carry out these attacks.
The situation assessment was that despite the immense damage to both lives and property in
Iraq, world opinion would have an easier time stomaching such an operation than a brutal
bombardment of a city. But, as was the fate of all of the IDF's plans during the First
Gulf War, the plans to attack the dams were not ready before the end of the conflict.
There was just one point at which Arens managed to seize the opportunity with his American
counterpart. On January 22, at 8:30 p.m., a rocket landed on Abba Hillel Street in Ramat
Gan, causing heavy damage and leading to the deaths of three elderly people through heart
attacks. The defense minister and the IDF chief of staff visited the site, and left with a
strong sense that the Americans' Patriot systems were incapable of properly intercepting
the Iraqi Scuds. Israel had reached the limits of its patience and of its
At 10:30 p.m., Arens convened a debate on how Israel should respond. "If the rocket
launches do not stop," the defense minister told the generals, "our civilians will flee
the urban areas." This grim prediction was to come true.
Arens spoke with Cheney during this debate, and for the first and only time, the Americans
agreed to allow Israel to take action in western Iraq, west of a line that would be set
between the two sides. However, the Americans repeatedly stressed that they were unable to
arrange any Israeli coordination with the Jordanians and the Saudis, and that this was
already Israel's business.
However, the Air Force meteorologists warned that bad weather was expected over Iraq for
the coming two days, and there was also a dispute over the size and intensity of the
operation. The head of the Israel Air Force was talking about 700 sorties a day, otherwise
it would be impossible to complete the mission. Others proposed making do with targeted
actions by IDF special forces. And again they went back to arguing who would be
responsible for the operation the commanders on the ground or the Air Force?
At a cabinet meeting held on January 23 at 9 a.m., the prime minister realized what he was
dealing with. In order to avoid offending the chief of staff and not back himself into a
corner, the prime minister authorized ongoing preparations for a wide-ranging operation in
western Iraq, but, in a hint to the army of his true plans, Shamir ordered additional
plans to be drawn up. "Until then," he said, "there is no authorization for anything."
The Gulf War is a poor precedent. Today, as Aviv Kochavi prepares the army for the
post-civil war era in Syria, he must take into account the fact that Israel will always be
subject to political pressure from a power that would deny it freedom of action - whether
it is the Americans in Iran or the Russians in Syria.
Another lesson from the Gulf War is that the IDF was unprepared for shifting regional
threats. The plans were drafted during wartime, and even the army itself was not convinced
that they could hold up. In order to withstand pressure the political echelon had to be
sure that it had an army with true ability, or the diplomatic battle would also be lost.
The third lesson was one intended mainly for Israel's neighbors: In the Gulf War, Israel
prepared especially harsh punitive measures. It did not implement them because it was not
ready from a political, operational or intelligence standpoint. But its willingness to
harm civilian populations in order to cause enormous damage to an enemy state, still
exists today. The long-range intelligence and operational capabilities also exist. The
enemy must know that the only thing that prevents Israel from striking major cities in
response to attacks on its own civilians is the willingness of the political echelon to
actually do it.
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