Requests for gas masks up five-fold in Israel

JERUSALEM — Anxious Israelis have been flocking to gas mask distribution centers despite official assurances that the crisis in Iraq doesn't threaten Israel.

The Israel Defense Force reported Wednesday a five-fold increase in the number of Israelis who are filing into the centers, spurred by concern that Iraq might launch missiles armed with chemical warheads at Israel.

An army spokesman said that some 10,000 people were lining up at the centers daily, compared to the 2,500 who came in before the recent crisis between Iraq and the United States.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provoked the crisis when he barred Americans from serving on U.N. weapons inspection teams that have monitored Iraqi weapons stockpiles since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Israeli officials have said they do not believe the crisis poses a threat to Israel at this time.

"Israel's residents can continue living their lives normally and with security," Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters during a visit to northern Israel on Wednesday.

With this, he added, "We are preparing for various possibilities, and hope the United Nations and great powers will resume working in Iraq to prevent it from producing weapons of mass destruction."

Israeli officials hinted last week that Israel would react if attacked by Iraq.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel, bowing to American pressure, did not retaliate after Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles armed with conventional warheads at the Jewish state. The missiles caused extensive property damage, but no direct casualties.