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Israelis putting aside fears of Iraqi attack

TEL AVIV, Israel—Buoyed by American advances in western Iraq, Israeli defense officials appeared poised Saturday to relax instructions requiring citizens to carry gas masks and poison gas antidotes with them at all times.

Ordinary Israelis already were a step ahead of the government, strolling along a road by the Mediterranean Sea and spending a lazy Sabbath afternoon in the restaurants and cafes of adjacent old Jaffa, none toting their survival kits, which are easily spotted in their government-issue cardboard boxes.

The crowds included mobilized reserve soldiers and uniformed off-duty troops, none of them with evident masks, either.

Thousands of Israelis thronged the beachfront area Saturday for the first time in days.

Civil defense authorities instructed citizens to carry the cardboard boxes at all times starting Wednesday night, just hours ahead of the start of U.S. cruise missile strikes on Baghdad. Some citizens stayed indoors and others fled to family or hotels in Jerusalem and the Negev Desert in the early hours of the American campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, at times making Tel Aviv look like a ghost town.

Government spokesman Daniel Seaman said defense officials probably would meet Monday to decide whether to suspend the survival-kit instructions.

Israeli news media began reporting Friday that U.S. and British troops had taken over the Iraqi airfields known as H-2 and H-3 in western Iraq, which were believed to have been used as the launch pads for some 29 Scud missiles that slammed into Israel in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

By Saturday, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim said Israel might wait until U.S.-led forces had completely conquered western Iraq before assessing the threat. Moreover, he warned that a desperate Saddam or his sons might try to attack Israel as a final act of defiance against the American-led campaign. "We don't know what is going on in Baghdad," he said on Israel Radio.

As long as the alert is intact, the government-run Education Ministry requires Israeli students to carry the lunchbox-like cardboard boxes to and from school. Smaller children carry somewhat larger cases than their parents do, because young children are issued hoods rather than the smaller black rubber gas masks that their parents and older brothers and sisters receive.

Israel's Air Force has been on high alert for days, increasing air patrols and deploying anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries around the country against Iraqi missiles and aircraft that might seek to unleash chemical or biological weapons or attempt a Sept. 11-style suicide attack.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.