The Sept. 6 attack by Israeli warplanes inside Syria struck what Israeli intelligence believes was a nuclear-related facility that North Korea was helping to equip, according to current and former American and Israeli officials.
The details about the Israeli assessment emerged as China abruptly canceled planned diplomatic talks in Beijing that were intended to set a schedule to disband nuclear facilities in North Korea. The Bush administration has declined to comment on the Israeli raid, but American officials were expected to confront the North Koreans about their alleged support for Syria during those talks.
The officials said that the Israeli government notified the Bush administration about the planned attack just before conducting the raid. It is not clear whether Bush administration officials expressed support for the action or counseled against it.
Questions surrounding the raid have been the subject of intense speculation in Washington and Jerusalem, but the details remain extraordinarily murky. Officials said that access to new intelligence reports about suspected North Korean support to Syria has been confined to a very small group of officials in Washington and Jerusalem.
The details about the Israeli intelligence remain highly classified, and the accounts about Israel’s thinking were provided by current and former officials who are generally sympathetic to Israel’s point of view. It is not clear whether American intelligence agencies agree with the Israeli assessment about the facility targeted in the raid, and some officials expressed doubt that Syria has either the money or the scientific talent to launch a serious nuclear program.
But current and former American and Israeli officials who have received briefings from Israeli sources said on Monday that the raid was an attempt by Israel to destroy a site that Israel believed to be associated with Syria’s rudimentary nuclear program.
The allegations come at a particularly delicate time, with the United States and several Asian countries testing whether North Korea is serious about dismantling its nuclear production facilities and providing a full accounting of all its nuclear facilities, fuel and weapons.
North Korea tested a nuclear device last October, though the results were mixed at best.
At the same time, Israel is wary of complicating continuing peace talks involving other countries in the Middle East about the future of the Palestinian state. In particular, the Bush administration has not decided yet whether Syria will be invited to an upcoming Middle East peace conference that is supposed to be held in Washington in November. A tense Israel-Syria standoff would further complicate that decision, Israeli and American officials said.
The Sept. 6 strike came several days after a ship with North Korean cargo tracked by Israeli intelligence docked in a Syrian port, according to the current and former officials.