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Israel works on muscle & masks

Jerusalem, Dec. 22 (Reuters): Israel has stepped up preparations for a possible US war against Iraq, scheduling joint exercises with US forces and gas mask lessons for schoolchildren, Israeli officials said today.

Israeli media reported that the country would go on high alert from January 15 in anticipation that hostilities would erupt in the Gulf some time between January 27 and February 26.

The defence ministry would not confirm the date, but said Israeli security forces have been preparing for a possible Iraqi attack.

Israel is concerned that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will respond to any US strike by launching missiles armed with chemical or biological warheads against the Jewish state which has been fighting a Palestinian uprising since September 2000.

Some 1,000 US troops are expected in Israel this week for an exercise involving US-made Patriot missiles, which were largely ineffective in intercepting the 39 Scud missiles that Iraq fired at the Jewish state in the 1991 Gulf War.

The Patriot has since been upgraded and Israel has developed and deployed the Arrow anti-missile system, designed to intercept Scuds at a higher altitude.

Asked about the US-Israeli military exercise, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said it was being held “in preparation of any possibility of war”.

Ronit Tirosh, director general of the education ministry, told Israel Radio that teachers had been instructed by soldiers on how to handle a possible missile attack during school hours and undergone training to help anxious children.

“The next stage, which will start in about a week, will be to train the youth and children on how to use gas masks and to instruct them what should be done at each stage,” she said.

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