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U.S. citizens in Israel urged to leave as nation prepares for war

JERUSALEM—The Israeli Home Front Command was poised Monday night to instruct Israelis to prepare airtight rooms in their houses against possible biological or chemical attacks, a military spokesman said.

Pamphlets explaining the procedure, which involves plastic sheeting and heavy-duty tape, were earlier distributed to every Israeli household, as were gas masks, said Israeli army spokesman Jacob Dallal.

The preparations anticipate an imminent U.S.-led strike on Iraq. Also under way is a limited call-up of reserve soldiers in the Home Front Command as well as anti-aircraft and intelligence units.

The precautions mirror those taken before the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel. The missiles wounded 259 civilians but killed only two. Seven more deaths were linked to suffocation from the incorrect use of gas masks, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Citing the "deteriorating security situation in the region," the U.S. State Department on Sunday ordered all non-essential U.S. diplomatic personnel and all dependents out of Israel, Syria and Kuwait.

Most in Israel have already gone, said Chuck Hunter, a spokesman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

The State Department has advised American citizens not to travel to Israel, Syria and Kuwait and strongly urged U.S. citizens there to leave. In addition to normal war zone dangers, the advisory cited the possibility that "terrorist organizations" would use chemical or biological agents to spread havoc.

The department urged U.S. citizens who remain in the region to exercise caution, keep a low profile and vary their times and routes of travel to work.

Britain also pared its embassy staff in Israel to a skeleton crew Monday.

An advisory on the British Foreign Office Web site called on British citizens in Israel and the Palestinian territories to leave as soon as possible. Britons with travel plans to the region were urged to curtail them.

Exiting Israel may soon get harder. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem has told some travel agents to expect delays of up to a month in processing visa requests because of short staffing. Formerly, such requests by non-Americans who want to visit the United States took about 10 days, said Frances Marcus, an agent in Jerusalem with the company Travex.


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