JERUSALEM -- Israel decided Wednesday to give smallpox vaccines to more than 15,000 security and rescue officials, expanding an inoculation program to protect its people in case of an Iraqi attack with chemical or biological weapons.
The Cabinet decision is part of Israel's overall preparation for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq which, in turn, could trigger an Iraqi strike against Israel. Iraq has biological and chemical weapons, in addition to missiles with conventional warheads.
Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisted such an Iraqi strike was "a very, very unlikely scenario."
Inoculations under way
Still, the Cabinet decided Wednesday to expand the smallpox inoculations. So far, several hundred Health Ministry workers have been vaccinated. Now, 15,000 rescue workers and security officials will also receive inoculations in case they would have to be called into action, Gissin said.
Also to be vaccinated are firefighters and ultra-Orthodox rescue workers, the Interior Ministry said, without specifying how many. The ultra-Orthodox rescue workers are often the first to arrive at the scene of an attack or an accident and collect body parts for burial, in line with Jewish law.
Gissin said Wednesday he did not know when the inoculations would begin. He said the Health Ministry was preparing the vaccines. He did not say which branches of the security would receive the shots.
Gissin said the expansion of the program was a contingency, "not something that has to do with any immediate threat."
In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles -- all with conventional warheads -- at Israel. Most landed in the Tel Aviv area.
The United States has said it wants to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, although it has not confirmed that it will go to war to do so.
Israel's Health Ministry recently announced it has produced enough smallpox vaccine for Israel's 6.6 million people. It said it would inoculate the entire population within a week if the United States attacks Iraq.
There is also enough vaccine to inoculate tourists and some 300,000 foreign workers, the ministry said. It did not say if it would inoculate the more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel stopped vaccinating children against smallpox in 1978. A year later, the World Health Organization said the virus was eradicated from the world.