JERUSALEM – Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (search) defended an Israeli plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein (search) in 1992, breaking his silence on an operation that was canceled after five Israeli commandos were killed during a dress rehearsal.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot (search) said Tuesday that commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit planned to kill Saddam as he attended a relative's funeral in his hometown of Tikrit, Iraq.
Saddam was captured by American forces near Tikrit on Dec. 14.
Barak was Israel's military chief of staff at the time of the planned operation, and was at the army base where the soldiers were killed in a missile accident. Ever since he has been hounded by allegations -- later proven false -- that he fled the scene, leaving behind wounded soldiers.
The operation against Saddam was canceled following the accident.
Barak told Israel Television on Friday night he normally opposed assassinating national leaders, but Saddam, who had fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War, was an exception.
"Imagine how we would have reacted a year ago, several months before the war in Iraq, if an American commando unit had taken out Saddam Hussein with a long-range missile and returned home safely," he said. "In my opinion, we would have applauded loudly, together with the rest of the world."
In interviews with the Yediot and Maariv newspapers published Friday, Barak said the 1991 Scud attacks demanded a response so Israel could maintain a credible military deterrent. Bowing to U.S. pressure, Israel did not retaliate in the immediate wake of the Iraqi strikes.
"It is incumbent on a country that inhabits dangerous territory, with threats like Saddam Hussein, to possess operational tools that give it a wide range of possible responses," Barak told Maariv. "How is it possible to cast doubt on the (anti-Saddam) operation?"
Barak, who was elected Israeli prime minister in 1999, was defeated in a re-election bid in 2001. He has recently hinted at a political comeback.
Critics of the planned 1992 operation against Saddam Hussein included Shimon Peres, then Israel's foreign minister and now the head of the opposition Labor Party. "If the operation had not ended in an accident, it would have caused a world war," Maariv quoted Peres as saying.
The Sayeret Matkal commandos were to have flown into Iraq and split into two groups. The advance unit was to head to the Saddam family cemetery outside Tikrit, while the second group deployed eight miles away.
The first unit would watch the funeral of Saddam's relative from 150 yards away, and signal to the soldiers further back to fire a barrage of missiles on the Iraqi dictator, Yediot reporter Ronen Bergman said. The custom-made missiles were named "Obelisk," the Maariv daily said.
After the assassination, the commandos were to have flown out of Iraq from a temporary airfield.