Column: the Nuclear Ankh

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In June of 1981, Israel bombed a not-quite-active nuclear power plant in the suburbs of Baghdad, Iraq. This was the second time in a year that the power plant faced attack from the air: Iran struck at the end of Sept., 1980, in a mission the name of which dripped with warrior-poet self-mythologizing: “Operation Scorch Sword.” That mission damaged the reactor, but the technicians were able to repair the damage. The Israeli strike, on the other hand — this one code-named “Operation Opera” — managed to disable the facility for good, though perhaps Iraq might have resurrected the project again were it not enmeshed in the Iraq-Iran War that dominated the country’s attention throughout the 1980s.

Detail of the nose of Israeli Air Force F-16A 253, flown in Operation Opera, as indicated by the green triangle marking. [Photo by Oren Rozen, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license.]

At the time, Operation Opera drew nearly universal condemnation from the international community. The Iraqi nuclear reactor would not have been powerful enough to make materials for nuclear weapons, and the deal to provide the reactors, the fuel to power them, and much of the technical knowledge and workforce to install and operate them, had been brokered not by some infamous rogue power, but by France. Even Margaret Thatcher called the Israeli attack unjustifiable, “a grave breach of international law.” The United Nations Security Council passed a unanimous resolution condemning Israel’s actions, though the United States prevented any concrete punishments, save for a two-month delay in delivery of a set of F-16s.

Today, a look through the academic writing on Operation Opera reveals mostly bloodless analysis of the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the attack on curtailing Iraq’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.[1] The question seems to have become less about the moral or legal question — was it defensible for Israel to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq, especially given the latter’s apparent compliance with international standards — and more about whether or not the strike “accomplished its mission” of deterring a nuclear weapons program. (On this, the findings are at best mixed: Iraq’s response to having its collaborative effort with France and the International Atomic Energy Commission bombed was to begin a secret program the following year.) Perhaps this should be unsurprising; any writing about Iraq in the 1980s must be read in the shadow of the Iraq War, in which the United States carried out a much more thorough preemptive attack than Operation Opera.

My interest in Operation Opera — or more precisely, in the reactor that was its target — is the result of a peculiar line of research I’ve been conducting into the history of my coven. As I have written about previously, my coven traces itself back to an English man named Deryck Alldrit and his American wife, Carrie, who lived in the St. Louis area during the late 1970s. I have been fascinated by Deryck for years, due in large part, I’m sure, to his absence: he and Carrie left the United States (and their coven) behind in 1978 for the Middle East, where Deryck, a civil engineer, worked on projects in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, yes, the nuclear reactor in Baghdad.

Deryck and Carrie’s years in the Middle East remain one of the more ambiguous periods of their lives for me. I have, for example, never managed to find a definite record of Deryck’s employment during the time; my knowledge of his work on the reactor comes mostly from the tales his friends, now my elders in the tradition, tell from his old letters, mailed with United Nations postage stamps.

I have no idea what Deryck might have done on the project: it seems like a strange position for him to be in, given that the reactor was a joint Iraq-France venture and Deryck was a citizen of neither of those countries. Perhaps he consulted for the International Atomic Energy Commission in some capacity; I have not been able to verify that either way. The most my elders knew was that Deryck said he worked for a U.N. “development program,” but none of the U.N. subdivisions that would fit that name would seem to have had any interest in Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Still, I don’t doubt he was there: one of the tall tales my elders tell me is that in one of Deryck’s letters he said he had to “get the hell out” of Iraq on short notice when the Iraq-Iran War broke out in 1980. Operation Scorch Sword would take place within a week of the war’s declaration.

There is an eerie poetry to some of the details of the Iraqi reactor and Deryck’s work on it. The name of the reactor, for instance, was Tammuz to the Iraqis, named for the month Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party came to power, and thereby indirectly named for the Babylonian god. But the French name, and the name that most of the literature on Operation Opera has used since, is Osirak: a portmanteau of “Iraq” and the name of the reactor model, Osiris. The Baghdad nuclear plant held two reactors, the main Osirak model and a smaller companion reactor, its model name being Isis.

The goddess Isis holding an ankh from her temple at Philae, Aswan, Egypt [Anna Carotti, public domain].

That two witches should come to the Middle East to work on reactors named for Pagan gods strikes me as an odd enough synchronicity. What unsettles me more is one of the first stories I ever heard about Deryck and Carrie, years before I began researching them in earnest, was the story of Carrie’s grave: she died of a brain tumor while they lived in the Middle East, and was buried in a British cemetery in Baghdad. Inlaid in her tombstone on a basalt-black stone is a thin white ankh. The legend has always been that they got away with something — “You couldn’t put a cross or a Star of David on a grave in an Iraqi cemetery,” my elders said, “but nobody thought anything of an ankh” — but after reading more about Osiris and Isis, Osirak and Tammuz, I wonder. Carrie died only three months before Operation Scorch Sword, when Deryck had to leave Iraq, as far as I know, for good.

Carrie’s ankh, a symbol of life, life continuing even after life is gone, sits heavily on my mind today, when the news is awash in new rounds of nuclear terror. The United States president has threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea, which has in turn openly suggested the possibility of a strike against Guam. To read some analyses, these are the outcomes of a reasoned process, a nuclear logic being taken to its conclusions. Perhaps, as with Operation Opera, we will someday read academic papers that scrutinize these events in terms of their operational effectiveness without questioning their moral consequences, should we be lucky to live that long.

[1] See, for example, Braut-Hegghammer, Målfrid, “Revisiting Osirak,” International Security, 36.1, 2011, 101-132.

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