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March 28, 2003


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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel is staying on high alert against an Iraqi strike despite a British assertion that coalition forces have disabled Saddam Hussein's ability to launch missiles from western Iraq, an Israeli government official said Thursday.

Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in the West Bank, pleading with Saddam Hussein to strike Israel with missiles and chemical weapons. In the 1991 Gulf War, the Jewish state was hit with 39 conventional Scud missiles, which caused heavy damage and hundreds of injuries but few deaths.

"We have disabled Iraq's ability to launch external aggression from the west," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday in a joint news conference with President Bush.

Western Iraq is the part of the country closest to Israel and the launching point of the missiles fired in the previous war.

But an Israeli government official who declined to be identified said Israel still could come under attack from elsewhere in Iraq and will remain under high alert until the threat of missiles or "other attacks" is removed completely.

Israelis have been told to keep gas masks with them and to prepare sealed rooms in case of a chemical or biological attack.

The war in Iraq, which began a week ago, has fueled anger in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where Saddam has doled out $35 million to Palestinian families with relatives killed during the uprising against Israel.

Meanwhile, military raids continued Friday when Israeli army officials said troops operating in the Tulkarem refugee camp killed an armed Palestinian and wounded another.

On Thursday, an Israeli attack helicopter fired two missiles at a northern town in the Gaza Strip, killing two Palestinian policemen and injuring more than a dozen. Three Palestinians were captured, allegedly for firing homemade rockets at Israeli towns.

Also Thursday, Israeli troops raided the West Bank offices of the International Solidarity Movement, a Palstinian-backed peace group, and arrested a wanted member of the militant Islamic Jihad group, the army said. The group's spokesman, Tom Wallace, said the members did not know the man's identity.

"Strike, strike Tel Aviv with chemicals!" more than 4,000 people chanted in the West Bank towns of Tulkarem and Tubas on Thursday. "Bush, the little one, you are a coward! The land of Iraq is not for you!"

Palestinians in the West Bank, holding posters of Saddam and waving Iraqi flags, stomped on Israeli and American flags.

The show of support for Saddam came as Bush and Blair stressed the importance of a "road map" to Palestinian statehood on Thursday.

The plan will be presented when Palestinian prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, is officially confirmed. Under intense international pressure, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed to create the position of premier and introduce other key reforms.

Without a halt in violence, though, the road map cannot go forward, said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. About 2,200 Palestinians have been killed during nearly 30 months of fighting -- about three times the Israeli toll.

"The first stage is the cessation of violence," Gissin said. "Israel is not afraid of the road map. It is a sequential process."

The Palestinian Authority has been careful to distance itself from the Iraqi leader.