ISRAEL'S decision to attack Syria earlier this month came after Israel shared intelligence with President George Bush indicating that North Korean nuclear personnel were in Syria, according to US Government sources.
Although the Administration was deeply troubled by Israeli claims that North Korea was assisting the nuclear ambitions of a country closely linked with Iran, sources said, the White House opted against an immediate response because of concerns it would undermine long-running negotiations aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
But ultimately the US is believed to have provided Israel with some corroboration of the original intelligence before Israel proceeded with the raid on the suspected nuclear site on September 6, which hit the Syrian facility in the middle of the night to minimise possible casualties, the sources said.
The target of Israel's attack was said to be in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. A Middle East expert who interviewed one of the pilots said they operated under such strict security that the airmen flying cover did not know details of the mission.
The pilots who conducted the attack were briefed only after they were in the air, he said. Syrian authorities said there were no casualties.
US sources would only discuss the Israeli intelligence, on condition of anonymity, and many details about the North Korean-Syrian connection remain unknown. The quality of the Israeli intelligence, the extent of North Korean assistance and the seriousness of the Syrian effort are uncertain, raising the possibility that North Korea was merely unloading items it no longer needed.
Syria has actively pursued chemical weapons in the past, but not nuclear arms — leaving some proliferation experts sceptical of the intelligence that prompted the Israeli attack.
Syria and North Korea have denied they were co-operating on a nuclear program. Mr Bush has refused to comment on Israel's attack, but he issued a blunt warning to North Korea that "the exportation of information and/or materials" would affect negotiations under which North Korea would give up its nuclear programs in exchanges for energy aid and diplomatic recognition.
Unlike Israel's destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel made no announcement of the recent raid and imposed strict censorship on reporting by the Israeli media.
But Israel's Opposition Leader and former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, this week said the Jewish state had carried out an air strike in Syria and that he had backed it.
"There is no question it was a major raid. It was an extremely important target," said Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence officer at Brookings Institution's Saban Centre.
"It came at a time the Israelis were very concerned about war with Syria and wanted to dampen down the prospects of war. The decision was taken despite their concerns it could produce a war. That decision reflects how important this target was to Israeli military planners."
The Israeli attack came just three days after a North Korean ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartus, carrying a cargo that was officially listed as cement. The ship's role remains obscure.
Israeli sources have suggested it carried nuclear equipment, others have claimed it contained only missile parts, and some have said the ship's arrival and the attack are merely coincidental.
WASHINGTON POST, AFP
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