NEGEV, ISRAEL — Five members of an Israeli undercover unit were killed by a top-secret missile during the final rehearsal of a planned attempt to kill Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a British newspaper reported today.

The Sunday Times, which said it was quoting Israeli sources, said the incident occurred Nov. 5 at the Tze'elim army base in the Negev Desert when the missile was accidentally fired into members of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. Six unit members were also wounded. The special "body-heat seeking" missile was accidentally fired at the elite unit. Oops.

"That accident saved Saddam's life," the Times quoted one source as saying.

The assassination attempt was canceled after the accident, indicating that it had been linked to a specific opportunity to kill him and could not be completed after members of the team had died, the newspaper added.

Members of the unit, which is a branch of military intelligence in reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, had trained for months.

The newspaper said the Israelis had intelligence from inside Iraq that made commanders 100 percent sure they would be able to kill Hussein. It quoted one source as saying the "body-heat seeking missile" would have been fired at the Iraqi leader.

Israel launched a disinformation campaign when rumors of what happened began to surface.

"Officials leaked a cover story that a group of soldiers had had an accident while training to kill a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon and added to this story's authenticity by accusing foreign correspondents of breaking censorship rules when they reported it," the paper said.