- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

RAMLEH, Israel, March 18 (UPI) — The Israeli army Tuesday advised Israelis to complete all preparations for sealing rooms, bomb shelters, and protected spaces in anticipation of an expected war in Iraq.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters during a visit to the Home Front Command Headquarters in Ramleh, east of Tel Aviv, that the call was made because of President George Bush's ultimatum to Iraq.

"When the ultimatum expires the American attack, in all probability, will be unavoidable," said Mofaz.

The ultimatum expires Thursday morning, Israel time. When United Press International asked Mofaz whether the order to seal rooms now indicates concern that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein might launch a preemptive strike, he answered: "You can understand (my meaning) perfectly well from what I said."

The army has meanwhile decided to call up 10,000 to 12,000 reservists mainly in Home Front Command rescue units and soldiers trained to deal with chemical and biological weapons, Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said. Reservists belonging to anti-aircraft and intelligence units were also mobilized.

Should Iraq attack Israel, some 30,000 reservists would be mobilized, Boim added. Israeli ministers and army commanders say, however, they believe the chances for an Iraqi attack are very small.

Israel's response to an attack would depend on its severity, Boim said. If the Iraqis fired a lone missile that fell into the sea, for example, Israel would not retaliate forcefully.

The United States has been urging Israel to restrain its reactions noting that U.S. troops would be taking measures to prevent such attacks.

Some Israelis have shelters in their apartments. These have become mandatory in houses built after the 1991 Gulf War when the army reckoned that people who live in upper floors of high rise buildings would not make it to basement shelters before the missiles hit. People who do not have shelters are advised to seal rooms with plastic sheets.

Bush' address seemed to make no immediate change in the Home Center hardware store in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv, a city with a large population of immigrants from Iraq. A trickle of customers was buying plastic sheets, masking tape, jerry cans, batteries, chemical toilets and other equipment.

However, women soldiers at a Home Front Command said phone calls from worried people had not let up since Bush issued his ultimatum.

Speaking to UPI Tuesday at noon, Pvt. Viki Yonatanov, 18, said she had started her shift 13 hours earlier and was still working. The moment she finished speaking to one caller, the phone rang with another, as UPI saw.

One woman caller kept Yonatanov on the phone for an hour saying she was at a loss about what to do. Soldiers handling the calls were under orders not to cut people short.

Another caller said he had been kicked out of his apartment, his belongings scattered and lost, and that could not afford to buy a new gas mask. At Yonatanov's suggestion, he tried to fax an appeal to the center, but was unable to transmit one as telephone lines were constantly engaged.

The head of the Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Youssef Mishlev, said he believed 95 percent of the Israeli population has gas masks.

British Airways meanwhile became the first airline to suspend services to Israel, as of Wednesday, the airline announced. BA has had two flights a day to Tel Aviv. Foreign carriers usually stop flying to Israel in wartime.

An agent at Y. Hillel Tours, Shoshana Fishler, said some families had made reservations early, to be on the safe side, but kept postponing flights, and finally cancelled them. Businessmen also cancelled flights abroad to be with their families, she said.

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