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(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel obtained detailed photographs from inside an alleged Syrian nuclear facility prior to carrying out an air strike on September 6, ABC News reported over the weekend.
An unnamed senior source in the US told the news network that the Mossad had discovered in the summer that Syria was constructing a nuclear facility and proceeded to either place a mole inside the plant or convince one of the workers to supply Israel with intelligence.
Through the mole, the source said, Israel received pictures from the ground that showed a large cylindrical structure, trucks, and a pumping station - all of which would be necessary components for a nuclear facility. Since the site was not yet operating, the official said, no evidence of fissionable material was found.
Also significant, ABC reported, was the site's design, which the official identified as "North Korean."
After obtaining the photos, the official said, Israel approached the CIA. The US looked up satellite coordinates for the site - which the official said was located some 160 kilometers from the Iraqi border in a remote part of the Syrian desert - and helped Israel pinpoint possible "drop sites."
Israel urged the US to carry out the attack, the ABC report said, and US officials began examining options for a strike. Possible tactics were assessed, including scenarios involving a helicopter raid and placing special forces on the ground.
However, word came from the White House that the US preferred not to attack, as it had no concrete proof that the facility was built to produce nuclear material. According to the report, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to convince Israel "to confront, not attack."
Neither the White House nor the CIA had any comment on the ABC report.
Meanwhile, UN experts have begun analyzing satellite imagery of the Syrian site struck last month, diplomats said, disclosing what amounts to the first independent look at the reports that Damascus was hiding a nuclear facility.
It was unclear where the material was obtained or what exactly it showed. One of the diplomats who is linked to the International Atomic Energy Agency - the UN nuclear watchdog examining the photos - said IAEA experts were looking at commercial images, discounting suggestions from other quarters that they had come from US intelligence.
Since the bombing, news media have quoted unidentified US officials as saying that the air strike hit some sort of nuclear facility linked to North Korea, which is now in the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program. On Friday, The Washington Post cited American officials as saying, in apparent confirmation of the ABC report, that the site in Syria's eastern desert had characteristics of a small but substantial nuclear reactor similar to North Korea's facility.
A North Korean delegation arrived in Syria over the weekend.
Officials of the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog and the US diplomatic mission to the IAEA had no comment Friday. But IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming indirectly rebuked Washington earlier this week, saying the agency "expects any country having information about nuclear-related activities in another country to provide that information to the IAEA."
The investigation by the IAEA is important because it is the first instance of an independent and respected organization looking at the evidence and trying to reach a conclusion as to what was hit.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, cautioned that - without full US cooperation - the IAEA's probe might be hampered because commercial satellite imagery "may not be of sufficient quality to figure out difficult questions."
Still, he welcomed IAEA involvement, saying it gave the chance for a neutral organization to "provide an assessment and give the international community some guidance about what has or has not happened."
Syria denies that it has an undeclared nuclear program and North Korea has said it was not involved in any nuclear program in the Middle East nation. Damascus has said the Israelis targeted an empty building, and the agency has said it has no evidence to the contrary.
The diplomats said that Vienna-based Syrian diplomats have met with senior IAEA representatives since the bombing, but have provided no substantive information that would indicate their country had nuclear secrets.
Syria has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has allowed agency experts to inspect its only known nuclear facility - a small, 27-kilowatt reactor, according to diplomats linked to the IAEA.