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The Israeli military has begun planning for retaliatory attacks against its civilian centers by Iraq in anticipation of a U.S military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

Israel Defense Force officials have “stepped up preparation of the home front in anticipation of the expected U.S. attack on Iraq,” reported the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Ma’ariv on Wednesday.

Sources told the paper that IDF commanders expect Saddam to order his forces to launch missile attacks against Israel once the United States begins its assault. IDF officials say they expect at least some of those long-range missiles to be armed with warheads containing chemical or biological agents.

The paper said IDF Home Front Command will use “Iron Wall” as the alert code to warn civilians of an impending Iraqi missile assault.

The report also said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, along with top IDF and diplomatic officials, asked the Bush administration to provide “several days” forewarning prior to any attack against Iraq, presumably to give the IDF more time to prepare for Baghdad’s expected missile response.

Israeli officials said a warning of only a few hours, such as the one given prior to the United States’ attack on Afghanistan, would not be sufficient because it would not give IDF personnel time to distribute civil-defense materials such as gas masks.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The Ma’ariv said Israeli defense officials see an “avalanche” of citizens converging on gas-mask distribution centers in the event of an Iraqi missile attack. In response, the IDF has trained about 3,000 reservists whose job it would be to distribute up to 50,000 masks per day to Israeli civilians.

The IDF also has revised its procedures for “updating and informing the public” of an attack. Upon detection of a missile launch from Iraq, “a siren will be activated throughout the country,” the paper said. The siren call will be followed by simultaneous television and radio broadcasts that will transmit the new “Iron Wall” alert code.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired a number of missiles at Israel from mobile launchers. Most were intercepted by newly developed Patriot anti-missile batteries.

U.S. analysts said Iraq wanted to draw Israel into the conflict in a bid to collapse the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition, which included many Arab nations.

In a separate report, The Washington Post said U.S. intelligence analysts believe Iraq may have constructed a bio-weapons facility on the western bank of the Tigris River near Baghdad.

Iraqi defectors and exiles have told U.S. officials of the facility, which is believed to be manufacturing a viral strain called “Blue Nile,” possibly a form of the Ebola virus.

Officials said they have been unable to confirm the existence of the facility using satellite imagery, but the Iraqi defectors and exiles say it includes underground testing labs and employs around 84 people.

Meanwhile, Bush administration officials reportedly have told leading lawmakers not to expect an “October surprise” attack on Iraq, giving Congress the opportunity to discuss and debate war with Iraq.

The disclosure was made in private to a number of senators planning a series of hearings that began yesterday into a potential U.S. attack against Iraq, reported USA Today.

An “October surprise” refers to an attack right before the Nov. 5 elections, as a way to boost President Bush’s and the GOP’s popularity.

Bush has said he will remove Saddam from power, referring to Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” that includes North Korea and Iran. However, administration officials have not decided on the best course of action, and Bush himself reportedly has not yet made up his mind on how best to proceed.

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