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Official: U.S. optimistic Israel stays out of Iraq war

An Israeli soldier shows a youth how to wear a gas mask at a distribution center near Tel Aviv.
An Israeli soldier shows a youth how to wear a gas mask at a distribution center near Tel Aviv.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Recalling the onslaught of 39 Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, Israel -- with U.S. assistance -- has fortified its defenses should Saddam Hussein repeat that attack.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday the "chance Israel will be hit" during an Iraqi war "is very small," he has accepted U.S. military aid. Sharon also is contemplating President Bush's request to allow the United States to retaliate for any Iraqi strikes on Israel, as was the policy in the first Persian Gulf War.

Iraq has said it no longer has missiles capable of reaching Israel, and U.S. officials believe the likelihood Iraq can orchestrate a major strike is quite low.

A senior White House official said that the administration shared that assessment and was optimistic Iraq would not pull Israel into the war. Such an event could dramatically complicate the politics of the conflict across the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the United States and Israel have opened "good lines of communication," the White House official said.

In an address to his Cabinet on Wednesday, Sharon said he appreciated that the United States is "leading the global campaign against terror" and hoped the campaign in Iraq would be short and successful with as few American and allied casualties as possible. He said he spoke to Bush on Monday and wished him "success in this struggle and this war."

Digging in

While Sharon has encouraged Israelis to continue their daily activities, the military has prepared its defenses.

"The war that will be waged is not a war in which we are involved," said Sharon. "Of course, we recognize the great danger that a country like Iraq, with its current leadership and its weapons of mass destruction, is involved in terror."

The Israeli Air Force is on a heightened state of alert as of noon Wednesday, one step below Israel's highest alert level. Planes are patrolling 24 hours a day, an Israeli military source told CNN. Citizens throughout the country are taking precautions to protect themselves if there is an Iraqi attack.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet on Wednesday that 12,000 reserve soldiers have been called up so far, and the number may lessen or grow depending assessments.

Although Sharon has not accepted Bush's offer to retaliate against Iraq should Saddam attack Israel, U.S. officials have said they are confident Israel will stay on the sidelines unless it faces a major Iraqi attack.

The United States has dispatched an Air Force general to Tel Aviv to coordinate with the Israeli military and to allow Israel access to classified Pentagon information so its military can monitor developments, the White House official said.

The U.S. assistance also includes access to an early warning system on missile launches and a pledge that U.S. forces would move in the early hours of any military action to seize Iraqi territory from which missiles could be launched at Israel, the official said.

Earlier this month, Israel deployed U.S.-supplied Patriot anti-missile systems throughout Israel to guard against possible Scud attacks by Iraq.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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