Israel's air strike inside Syria last month was directed at a site judged by Israeli and US intelligence analysts to be a partly constructed nuclear reactor, The New York Times reported in Sunday editions.
Citing US and foreign officials who had access to the analysts' intelligence reports, all who spoke under condition of anonymity, the Times said the reactor was apparently modeled on one in North Korea used for stockpiling nuclear weapons fuel.
The targeted Syrian facility appeared to have been much further from completion than an Iraqi reactor the Israelis destroyed in 1981 in an attack the September 6 incident echoed, according to the Times, again citing US and foreign officials. It also said Bush administration officials had been divided over the attack, with some seeing it as premature.
Some officials said the facility was years away from being used to produce spent nuclear fuel that could eventually be used for weapons-grade plutonium. The internal Bush administration debate over a possible Israeli attack on the reactor began last summer, the Times said.
It remained unclear how far Syria had gotten with the plant before the attack, what role North Korea might have played and whether a case could be made it was intended to produce electricity, the newspaper said.
US and foreign officials refused to be drawn out on whether they suspected North Korea of having sold or given the plans to Syria, but some officials said it was possible a transfer of technology occurred several years ago.
Israel confirmed earlier this month it had carried out an air strike on Syria, but the two countries have given little information on the target.
Information on the raid has been under tight wraps in both Washington and Israel, the newspaper said, restricted to a handful of officials, and Israeli media have been barred from publishing information about it.
But a senior Israeli official said the attack was meant to "re-establish the credibility of our deterrent power," the Times said. Several US officials told the paper the strike may also have been intended for the attention of Iran and its nuclear program.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to comment on the Times story. Israel also refused to comment, the Times said.
The newspaper also reported that Vice President Dick Cheney and other hawkish members of the administration contended that the same intelligence that prompted Israel's attack on the reactor strengthened the case for US reconsideration of negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear program, as well as Washington's diplomatic posture with Syria.