— During the first Gulf War in 1991, the United States pressured Israel to ignore is long-standing policy of sure and swift retaliation when Saddam Hussein sent nearly 40 Scud missiles into the country, leading to 13 deaths.
But it now turns out that Israel quickly began planning a delayed response — a bold, top-secret plan to assassinate Saddam.
It ended only when a training exercise for the mission went horribly wrong, killing five Israeli soldiers. At the time, the Israeli military claimed the target of the plot that led to the tragic accident was Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Details of the plan were reported for the first time last month in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest-circulation newspaper.
Pro and Con
The Israeli government was sharply divided on whether to even try to undertake an assassination plot, according to the newspaper's account. The intelligence services were highly skeptical that it could succeed. But the military, led by Ehud Barak, then the army's chief of staff and later prime minister, championed the plan.
Not only would it even the score for the Scud missile attacks during the war, but Israeli officials were frustrated by the fact that Saddam had held onto power after the war.
"This guy was a distorted character that presented, in my judgment, a profound, long-term, critical kind of threat to the state of Israel as well as to the whole region," Barak told ABCNEWS in his first television interview about the plan.
The assignment was given to Israel's most elite special forces unit, the equivalent of the U.S. Army's Delta Force. The unit had executed some of Israel's most daring military operations, including the 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue hostages held by Palestinian hijackers.
Planning began under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and continued after he was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin. Barak recalled that officials examined all sides of the issue: "What will be the implications? Who might take over? What happens if he's just wounded — not killed? What could be his response? To what extent are we ready for that?"
The decision was made to move forward with planning, to see if it was even possible, before deciding whether to execute the plan.
One of the first decisions was the place — Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and not far from where he was captured by U.S. forces earlier this month. Another was the method — a then-top-secret, remote-control missile guided by a joystick using a television signal transmitted from its nose.
And they came up with an extraordinary way to lure Saddam to Tirkit — a funeral. In order to control the timing of the funeral, Israeli special forces planned to assassinate a member of his clan — someone whose funeral Saddam would very likely attend.
The Israeli military would use two helicopters, flying low to avoid radar, to secretly drop commandos and jeeps deep in Iraq. They would drive with the missile to a point about eight miles from the cemetery. Scouts would move much closer, dig in and wait. When Saddam arrived, they would give the signal to fire.
Military officials acknowledged the chances of getting the Israeli forces out of Iraq alive were unknown. All the soldiers volunteered, they said, and knew the risks.
In November 1992, a training exercise for the mission went horribly wrong. Commandos thought they were firing a live missile at mannequins representing Saddam and his bodyguards. In fact, fellow soldiers were playing those roles. Five of them died — although, ironically, the officer portraying Saddam survived. The tragedy brought the planning to a halt.
"We were caught by the accident in the middle building, a building block for our menu of operational capabilities," Barak said.
Two months after the accident, on Jan. 14, 1993, Prime Minster Rabin made a ceremonial visit to an Israeli air force base. In a news conference, with the head of the Israeli air force at his side, Rabin was asked about a recent U.S. strike against Iraqi targets in response to Saddam's violation of the so-called no-fly zones established after the Gulf War.
"No doubt we would like to see the disappearance of Saddam Hussein as the tyrant and the dictator of Iraq," Rabin said. "But this is not our business. This is one of our hopes, but there is nothing we can do about it."
With that, the videotape of the event shows, Rabin, killed by an assassin's bullet in 1995, turned to the air force chief of staff and exchanged a quick, cryptic nod.