updated 3/20/2007 5:35:23 PM ET 2007-03-20T21:35:23

Air raid sirens wailed across Israel Tuesday and thousands of security forces and rescue crews were mobilized in a nationwide drill to prepare for possible chemical attacks or an Iranian missile strike.

The two-day exercise — the largest in the nation’s history — was also meant to demonstrate the lessons learned from last summer’s highly criticized war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

During the monthlong war, nearly 4,000 rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas rained down on Israel, and government services collapsed in many parts of the country’s north, leaving tens of thousands of people trapped in bomb shelters without food, medicine or other basics.

Their plight, added to the fact that none of Israel’s stated war goals were accomplished, triggered harsh criticism of the leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, as well as army chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who resigned.

Tuesday’s drill appeared to be an effort to show that will not happen again.

During the exercise, police, soldiers and rescue crews responded to simulated assaults in seven different locations.

At a high school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, stun grenades boomed as yellow smoke wafted over the basketball court in a simulated chemical attack by two armed men wearing red-and-white keffiyahs and signs saying “terrorist.” Soldiers acting as students shrieked and ran, collapsing as they wiped their eyes in mock pain.

One of the assailants was “shot” and the other pretended to blow himself up with explosives. Chemical treatment workers dressed in protective suits rushed in to neutralize the substance, while paramedics wearing gas masks emerged from several ambulances.

In the parking lot, fire trucks set up showers to wash chemicals from “victims.” Finally, anti-terror forces armed with large guns swarmed the school, running into the basketball court and up the inside stairwell. Two pounced on the wounded assailant, holding him down.

Minister: ‘Main threat is Iran’
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the exercise was meant in part to defend against a possible Iranian missile attack.

“We will do everything to defend the Israeli people against all kinds of attack, wherever it comes from,” Sneh told reporters outside the school. “The main threat is Iran and the terror organizations that Iran supports and sponsors.”

Israel is especially concerned by Iran’s development of long-range missiles and its nuclear program. Despite Iranian denials, Israel and the United States believe it wants to develop nuclear arms. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

A total of 5,000 police, a quarter of the overall force, and 6,000 soldiers took part in the drill, security officials said.

A firefighter at the Ramat Gan school, Hezi Levi, dismissed the huge exercise as “unrealistic,” saying such a heavy contingent of rescue personnel could not be mustered to each site in the event of real disasters at several different locations.

In an unexpected twist, the exercise was briefly suspended after a report that a real attack might be under way on a major highway near Tel Aviv. Police stopped a car and arrested three passengers. Bomb disposal experts searched the vehicle for explosives but turned up nothing in their initial inspection, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

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