Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fought for his life yesterday following seven hours of emergency surgery to stop widespread bleeding in his brain. The massive stroke made it unlikely that he would return to power, and plunged the region into uncertainty.
Vice Premier Ehud Olmert was named acting prime minister, given a beefed-up security detail and quickly convened Cabinet ministers, trying to convey continuity.
"This is a difficult situation that we are not accustomed to," Olmert told somber ministers. Sharon's chair at the center of the long oval table remained empty.
Israel's attorney general announced that despite Sharon's illness, a general election would be held as planned on March 28.
Sharon's sudden turn for the worse, at the height of his popularity, stunned Israelis, who had relied on the tough ex-general to steer them through turbulent times. Rabbis called Israelis to flock to synagogues and say special prayers for the 77-year-old Sharon.
"The last battle," read the frontpage headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
Palestinians followed reports on Sharon's condition with a mix of apprehension and glee, and some officials said they feared the dramatic events would derail Jan. 25 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite his Gaza pullout last year, Sharon is still widely reviled in the Arab world for his tough actions against Palestinians.
Officials at Hadassah Hospital said that Sharon would remain in deep sedation in the intensive care unit for at least 24 more hours, following seven hours of emergency surgery to stop massive, wide-spread bleeding in the brain.
"The situation is still serious, but it's stable," hospital director Shlomo Mor-Yosef said.
Mor-Yosef denied widespread rumors that Sharon's condition was far worse than his doctors let on, and promised he would issue immediate updates on any changes.
Sharon's stroke threw Israeli politics and diplomacy throughout the region into turmoil in the midst of election campaigns for both the Palestinians and Israel.
The premier had been expected to easily win re-election in March at the head of the moderate Kadima Party he created to free his hands for further peace moves with the Palestinians.
Sharon was at his ranch in southern Israel on Wednesday evening, resting ahead of a medical procedure scheduled for yesterday to close a small hole in his heart, when he fell ill.
Doctors rushed him to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, instead of a hospital in nearby Beersheba, because his condition did not appear dire, Sharon aides said. He suffered the stroke during the hourlong drive to Jerusalem, Dr. Shmuel Shapira of Hadassah Hospital said.
Doctors began lengthy emergency surgery about midnight.
Doctors said yesterday morning they had stopped the bleeding during initial surgery, but Sharon was sent back to the operating room because a brain scan showed he required more treatment. He later underwent a second scan before being sent to the intensive care unit, Mor-Yosef said.
Mor-Yosef said that Sharon's vital signs were stable.
Surgery apparently had been complicated by blood thinners Sharon took following a mild stroke Dec. 18.
The medication may also have contributed to Wednesday's stroke. The small hole in Sharon's heart was believed to have contributed to the initial stroke.
Aides to Sharon said they were working on the assumption he would not return to work. "It is very clear that we will not again see Sharon serving as the prime minister," said an Israeli Cabinet minister, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.