Alexander Zemlianichenko  /  AP
Visitors stand behind a police barrier on Sunday outside the Hadassah hospital, where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in a coma since suffering a stroke Jan. 4.
updated 2/12/2006 5:25:37 PM ET 2006-02-12T22:25:37

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been comatose since suffering a massive stroke more than five weeks ago, was in critical but stable condition Sunday following emergency abdominal surgery, the hospital treating him said.

Though the surgery was successful, Sharon’s doctors said hope was fading for the premier to wake from his coma. Since the stroke, Sharon has been hooked up to a breathing tube. A feeding tube was inserted in his stomach on Feb. 1.

Sharon, 77, was rushed into surgery Saturday morning after an abdominal scan revealed dead tissue in his digestive system.

Doctors removed 20 inches, or one-third, of his large intestine during the four-hour surgery, the seventh Sharon has undergone since suffering the debilitating stroke Jan. 4. The tissue death, or necrosis, was either caused by infection or a drop in the blood supply to the intestines, something common in comatose patients, Sharon’s doctors said.

Critical and stable’
“Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s condition stabilized after surgery, but it is still described this morning as critical and stable,” Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital said in a statement. “The prime minister is in the general intensive care unit.”

Sharon’s political heir, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Sunday he was relieved by the success of the surgery and expressed his support for Sharon’s sons, Omri and Gilad.

“We are encouraged by the reports from Hadassah Hospital regarding the health situation of the prime minister following the operation yesterday,” Olmert said before the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “The whole government is sending a warm hug to Omri and Gilad, who are standing by their father day and night.”

Sharon’s sons have acquired guardianship over their father since his stroke. Under Israeli law, any decision to perform emergency surgery or to discontinue medical treatment would require their consent, said Jonathan Davies, a leading Israeli medical law expert.

Kadima party poised for victory
Despite Sharon’s illness, his new, centrist Kadima Party, with Olmert at the helm, appears poised to win Israel’s March 28 election. Polls show Kadima receiving twice as many seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament as its nearest rivals.

The obese Sharon had brushed aside repeated questions about his health until he suffered a mild stroke on Dec. 18 at the height of his popularity.

Sharon, a war hero to Israelis, had for years opposed concessions to the Palestinians. He came to accept the idea of giving up land and allowing them to form a state only during his most recent term as prime minister, which began in 2003.

After last summer’s successful pullout from the Gaza Strip and his break with the hard-line Likud Party, Sharon was widely expected to draw Israel’s final borders with or without Palestinian assent if elected for a third term.

Speaking to Kadima members Sunday night, Olmert praised Sharon’s “greatness” in following through with the Gaza pullout in the face of strong opposition.

IMAGE: Ariel Sharon
Emilio Morenatti  /  AP file
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, shown here on Nov. 21, underwent emergency surgery on Saturday.
“He came up with the initiative, took the responsibility, marked the goals, took the risks and won thanks for all that,” Olmert said. “We will continue this way.”

Aides played down Sharon’s health problems even after the mild stroke. Doctors treated the prime minister with anti-clotting agents and scheduled a heart procedure for Jan. 5 to close a hole believed to have contributed to that first stroke.

Sharon suffered a massive stroke and slipped into the coma hours before the operation.

Olmert set for West Bank withdrawal
In a TV interview earlier this week, his first since taking over, Olmert suggested he would withdraw from large areas of the West Bank if elected. He did not make clear whether he would act unilaterally.

Olmert said Israel will give up the parts of the West Bank where most of the Palestinians live but retain main Jewish settlement blocs.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of a future independent state.

Unilateral Israeli action appears increasingly likely considering the victory of the Islamic militant group Hamas in last month’s Palestinian parliamentary elections. Olmert has said Israel will shun a Hamas government unless the group — considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe — renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

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