Doctors battling to save the life of Ariel Sharon carried out a fresh brain scan on the Israeli prime minister yesterday as he remained in a deep, medically induced coma at a Jerusalem hospital.
Israelis and world leaders have been bracing themselves for the end of the Sharon era, amid fears his demise will spark new turmoil in a region struggling to find the path to peace after decades of conflict.
Doctors have said privately that Sharon may have suffered irreversible brain damage since he experienced a massive hemorrhage on Wednesday, leaving the future of Israeli politics hanging in the balance ahead of a March election.
But a spokesman for the Hadassah hospital said the latest scan, carried out after the 77-year-old underwent three bouts of brain surgery, had been planned in advance and did not indicate any worsening of his situation.
"It does not mean something has happened," Ron Krumer said.
Medical sources said that the scan took 25 minutes and Sharon had been returned to the intensive care unit as the results were assessed.
As Israelis, no strangers to times of crisis, prayed for Sharon on the Jewish Sabbath, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cleared her diary by canceling a trip to Indonesia and Australia.
Sharon was declared "critical but stable" on Friday night after three hours of surgery which managed to stem new hemorrhaging in his brain, his third operation since being rushed to hospital.
Just days ago, Sharon, who has been premier since early 2001, and his new centrist Kadima party had seemed a shoo-in for a general election set for March 28. But all previous calculations are now being revised.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that Israel faced a period of great uncertainty while Sharon fought for his life.
"Of course Ariel Sharon was perhaps the most dominant single figure in the whole of Middle East politics and therefore he leaves a hole for everybody. There's great uncertainty in the short term," Straw said.
But "even if Ariel Sharon had been well" there would have been little movement on the political level "until the end of March and the formation of a new government."
Before Israel goes to the polls, the Palestinians are also scheduled to elect their own new government on Jan. 25.
Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Sharon's plight should have no impact on the ballot, he has also threatened to postpone it if Israel does not guarantee that voting can take place in occupied east Jerusalem.
The decision will now lie in the hands of Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who is replacing Sharon while he lies stricken.