Sharon breathes on his own

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Ariel Sharon started breathing on his own and moved his right arm and leg in response to pain stimulation Monday, but his chief surgeon said that despite that “very important” sign, it’ll be days before doctors can assess whether the prime minister is lucid enough to return to power — an outcome considered unlikely.
A medical ruling would end days of uncertainty over the fate of the 77-year-old leader many herald as the best hope for Mideast peace. Doctors said his chances of survival are better, but that he is not out of danger.

The doctors’ final word would also enable Sharon’s new, centrist Kadima Party to choose a successor and start campaigning for March 28 general elections. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — Sharon’s loyal ally and a proponent of unilateral withdrawals from more Palestinian-claimed lands — is seen as the most likely heir.

The Palestinians’ political future, which was to be decided in January 25 parliament elections, also appeared in limbo.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reiterated Monday that the vote would take place on time, but Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef warned his security forces would not be able to protect polling stations against gunmen. Abbas’ Fateh party fears it will be embarrassed by the Islamic militant Hamas in the election, and there is concern Fateh-linked gangs will attack polling stations if defeat becomes apparent.

Before Sharon’s massive stroke last week, he had been expected to handily win reelection, then use his third term to try to draw Israel’s final borders by pulling out of large parts of the West Bank and completing a separation barrier with the Palestinians.

Former US president Bill Clinton said Sharon’s stroke is a blow to peace efforts. “All of us who believe in peace in the Middle East are in his debt, and so more than anything else, I pray for his health,” he said.

On Monday, doctors at Hadassah Hospital began gradually reducing Sharon’s sedatives to rouse him from the induced coma he has been in for five days so they can assess brain damage. They said they won’t have a full picture for several days.

“We are just at the beginning of a very long way,” said his chief surgeon, Dr Felix Umansky, briefing reporters for the first time. “It’s too early to talk about the cognitive issue.” After the level of sedatives dropped, Sharon started breathing on his own, though he remains hooked up to a respirator and unconscious. He also lifted his right hand and leg slightly in response to pain stimulation, said Dr Shlomo Mor Yosef, the director of Hadassah.

Sharon’s response is a “very important” sign and indicated his brain stem is working, but it’s still too early to assess what impact the massive bleeding he suffered in his right brain would have on his cognitive abilities or on the left side of his body, Umansky said.

Doctors will continue lowering the level of sedatives in Sharon’s body over the next several days, he said.

Sharon has not yet opened his eyes — though his doctors were hoping he would do so when the sedative levels dropped further — and outside experts cautioned there is no assurance he will wake up at all.

“His chances of survival are better than if the respiratory centre had been damaged, but that still doesn’t mean he’s going to survive,” said Dr John Martin, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College in London. Martin said Sharon’s weight and age work against him.

Israel TV’s Channel 2 quoted Sharon’s advisers, who are keeping watch by his side, as saying he also responded to words in some fashion. Classical music, including Mozart, is being played in Sharon’s room.

Doctors had kept Sharon in an induced coma and on a respirator since Thursday to give him time to recover from the stroke and three brain surgeries. Umansky said the doctors could put Sharon under again if his condition worsens.

The doctors’ final assessment on Sharon’s brain damage will be presented to Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who will then decide whether to declare the prime minister permanently incapacitated.

In the event of such a ruling, the Cabinet would have to elect a new prime minister within 24 hours, from among the five sitting Kadima Cabinet ministers who are also lawmakers, said justice ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti.

Olmert, who is among the five, was named acting prime minister after Sharon’s stroke, and can serve in the role for 100 days, which would carry him through the elections.

The uncertainty over Sharon’s condition has unsettled Israelis, who have been anxiously following news updates.

At the entrance to the hospital Monday, three Jerusalemites hung up a white sheet with blue lettering in English and Hebrew that read, “Ariel Sharon, there is more to do, please wake up.” In the Gaza Strip, where Sharon is reviled for his tough policies on Palestinians, 40 masked gunmen from Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant group held a demonstration against the Israeli prime minister. One held a gun to a photo of Sharon that was labelled “the killer of children” and then burned the picture.

Amid uncertainty over Sharon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was sending two envoys to the Middle East, to try to resolve an Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the participation of Arab residents of Jerusalem in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Abbas has said such participation is a requisite for holding the elections.

Abbas said Monday he has received US assurances Palestinians will be able to vote in the city, despite Israeli opposition. Earlier Monday, Israel allowed campaigning in Jerusalem, a first conciliatory step, but said it has not yet decided whether to permit voting.

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