The hospital treating Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that doctors will continue reducing his level of sedation and testing his reactions, more than five days after he suffered a massive stroke.
The statement from Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital said Sharon's condition, unchanged overnight, was critical but stable. Doctors began removing anesthetics on Monday, and Sharon responded to pain stimuli with slight movements of his right leg and arm, they said.
However, doctors said it would be days before they could assess damage to his brain, critical to determining the political future of Sharon, Israel and the region.
Sharon was still unconscious yesterday morning. Doctors said he was able to breathe on his own, though he was still hooked up to a respirator.
Doctors said on Monday that the slight progress Sharon showed after they began withdrawing sedatives that had kept him in a coma since the stroke on Wednesday was just the beginning. Considering the amount of bleeding and the many hours surgeons spent trying to stop it, doctors doubt he will recover enough to resume his duties.
If not, Israel's Cabinet would have to choose a premier to serve until March 28 elections, and the campaign, on hold because of Sharon's illness, could get underway. Acting premier Ehud Olmert was his logical successor.
Sharon was expected to win in a landslide at the head of his new, centrist Kadima Party, but without him, it would be a wide-open race -- just as Sharon's absence from Middle East diplomacy, after his unprecedented unilateral pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank in the summer, would throw peace efforts into disarray.
The Palestinians' political future, which was to be decided in Jan. 25 parliament elections, also appeared in limbo.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Monday that the vote would take place on time, but Interior Minister Nasser Yousef warned that his security forces would not be able to protect polling stations against gunmen.
Abbas' Fatah Party fears it will be embarrassed by the Islamic militant Hamas in the election, and there is concern Fatah-linked gangs will attack polling stations if defeat becomes apparent.
Also, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was sending two envoys to try to resolve an Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the participation of Arab residents of Jerusalem in the election.
Abbas has said such participation is a requisite for holding the election and said he had assurances from the US that it would be allowed.
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.
In the Gaza Strip, where Sharon is reviled for his tough policies on Palestinians, 40 masked gunmen from the 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 labeled "the killer of children" and then burned the picture.
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, Felix Umansky, briefing reporters for the first time. "It's too early to talk about the cognitive issue."