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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has told Israeli security and emergency services to be ready with critical defensive preparations by early November, in case of a U.S. attack on Iraq - a clear indication Israel believes the U.S. assault could come as early as then.

The U.S. has not told Israel - currently the only country in the world verbally giving full backing to an American assault on Saddam Hussein's regime - if or when it will attack Iraq, and November 1 was chosen by Israel as a "reasonable" deadline for preparations.

Security officials, including a senior member of the Home Front Command, confirmed they have been asked by the government to present their plans by November 1.

At a meeting attended by Sharon, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and various professional agencies, including intelligence officials, the "window of opportunity" for the U.S. assault was described as opening in November.

It is influenced by many factors, not only military and logistical, but also domestic politics in the U.S. and international politics.

Some inside the security establishment have doubts about the November assessment, saying that not only military and logistical considerations have to be taken into account but also issues like the congressional elections and U.S. negotiations with possible coalition partners - whether full or partial.

There is also the possibility that, at the last minute, Saddam will agree to accept UN weapons inspectors and strict rules about their work, which he opposed in the past.

But even those who discount a fall attack believe if there's no significant change in the international and domestic political climate in the U.S., the offensive could come in early 2003 - or earlier, if Saddam takes provocative steps as he has often done in the past, giving the Americans an excuse to act.

Sharon adviser Ra'anan Gissin refused to discuss Israel's preparations for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, except to say that Israel would be forewarned about any such action.

"The president of the United States will give us ample warning so we can prepare for the possibility of an Iraqi attack on Israel," Gissin said.