JERUSALEM - Just days after U.S. soldiers put Saddam Hussein behind bars, Israeli military censors have lifted a ban on reporting a tightly held government secret: a plan to assassinate the Iraqi leader at his uncle's funeral in 1992.
Israel, moving quickly to insert itself into the international debate over Hussein's future, also said it was considering whether to press war crimes charges against the deposed Iraqi leader and to seek compensation for Iraq's firing of 41 Scud missiles into Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Alan Baker, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's legal adviser, said the Scud attacks, which killed two people and wounded 208, appeared to violate international law because they targeted civilians and population centers.
"We'll be in contact with the United States, with the State Department, with the Justice Department, and once things develop we will decide how we're going to act," Baker said.
In the 1992 bid to assassinate Hussein in retaliation for the Scud attacks, several schemes were proposed, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported yesterday, quoting officials involved in planning the operation.
Israeli security officials were furious about the revelation.
"There are things that are best left unsaid for security reasons, and should not be told to the whole world in an irresponsible fashion," said Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon.
The assassination plans included gliders laden with explosives, a television-guided missile launched from a plane and a disguised bomb sold to a member of Hussein's entourage.
But fears that one of Hussein's legendary doubles would be hit instead of Hussein himself stalled the planning and sent Israeli military and intelligence planners back to the drawing board.
"When you want to locate or abduct or assassinate someone, the basic idea is to find out exactly when he repeats himself, where it is certain that he will go, he and not a double," the newspaper quoted the former intelligence officer for the mission, Maj. Nadav Zeevi, as saying.
According to the newspaper article, a breakthrough occurred in May 1992, when Israeli spies learned that Hussein's uncle, Tilfah, was terminally ill with diabetes. Israeli intelligence analysts argued that Tilfah's funeral was an event that Hussein's family and tribal ties would not allow him to miss, the paper reported.
Following often bitter internal debate about the value of killing Hussein and the costs of both success and failure, the Israeli analysts and planners decided that the best chance of eliminating the Iraqi leader was to drop commandos by helicopter near a cemetery close to Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and only a few miles from where he was seized Saturday.
From there, they would fire a "smart" missile with a camera in its nose, targeting Hussein amid the crowd of government officials and family members attending the funeral, the newspaper said.
The operation, code-named "Bramble Bush," was called off after five of the commandos were killed in a training exercise carried out in the presence of a delegation of Israeli generals that included Ehud Barak, then army chief of staff and later prime minister. As part of the exercise, commandos were to fire a dummy missile at soldiers playing the roles of Hussein and his bodyguards. A live missile was used by mistake, killing the five soldiers, and wounding six others.
The reports also revived questions about Washington's role in condoning assassination plots.
During the Persian Gulf war, the administration of President George H.W. Bush had persuaded Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from retaliating against Baghdad. It feared a Middle East conflagration if Israel entered the war against Iraq.
But after Iraq's ouster from Kuwait left Hussein in power, Israel argued in talks with U.S. officials that its failure to act had damaged its ability to deter future attacks from Iraq and elsewhere, Yediot Ahronot said.
Washington would not move against Hussein because of an executive order banning assassinations of foreign leaders that President Bush has since revoked. That left Israel to act on its own, the report said.
"Israel understood from these talks that the Americans would not actually be angry if Israel took on itself the job of killing Saddam," it said.