[IMRA: If this indeed is the case then Prime Minister Sharon’s current actions are proof positive that he does indeed operate within a 48 hour planning horizon. Someone wishing to prepare for a possible war in 2006 certainly wouldn’t invite Egypt to station its army a few kilometers from Ashkelon – with attack helicopters, armored vehicles, anti-tanks missiles, etc., retreat from the Gaza Strip so that it can become what Israeli security people term a “land based Karine A” with rockets that will first reach Ashkelon and then Ashdod and then… and create a similar situation in northern Samaria.]

WASHINGTON [MENL] — Israel has relayed its concern to the United States of the rising prospect of a Middle East war in 2006.

U.S. officials said Israel has determined that the expected U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2006 would raise tensions in the region that could lead to a Middle East war. The officials said the Israeli assessment asserted that Iran would either lead or play a major role in any future war against the Jewish state.

“It is the biggest nightmare of [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon,” a U.S. official said. “He has relayed repeated messages to the administration that Iran and its Arab allies were preparing for war.”

Officials said Sharon has raised this issue with President George Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney and leaders of the U.S. intelligence community. They said Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have assessed that an Iran emboldened with nuclear weapons and intermediate-range missiles was seeking to form a coalition against Israel for a war that could take place after a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Sharon discussed Iran’s nuclear weapons program during his visit to the United States last week. Officials said the prime minister, equipped with satellite photos, told Bush and Cheney that Iran has nearly reached the point of indigenous nuclear weapons capability. He said Iran still had several technical obstacles to overcome.

“Once they will solve it, that will be the point of no return,” Sharon said in a U.S. television interview.

So far, the Bush administration has not supported Sharon’s urging for an immediate response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Officials said the administration has been supporting European Union diplomatic efforts for a permanent halt in Iranian uranium enrichment. They said the administration was prepared to give the EU until the end of 2005 to achieve its aim.

“We all have a shared concern and a shared goal, our shared goal is to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “That would be a very destabilizing factor in the region. We continue to support those [EU] diplomatic efforts to resolve this in a peaceful manner.”

Israel has told the United States that Iran was developing nuclear warheads for ballistic and cruise missiles. Officials said Israel assessed that Iran would have indigenous nuclear capability by 2006.

Sharon was also said to have urged Bush for military support to ensure that Israel would receive the supplies and weapons required to deter or fight any Middle East war in wake of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Officials said the prime minister asserted that Iran was encouraging Palestinian insurgency groups and Hizbullah to increase tensions along the southern and northern Israeli borders.

But officials said most of the U.S. intelligence community does not share the Israeli assessment of either an imminent Iranian nuclear threat or the prospect of a regional war in 2006. They said U.S. intelligence does not envision an Iranian nuclear bomb until at least 2010.

“Our intelligence community has used in the past an estimate that said that Iran was not likely to acquire a nuclear weapon before the beginning of the next decade,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on April 13. “That remains the case.”

The U.S. priority in the Middle East, officials said, was for Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state. During his meeting with Sharon, officials said, Bush asserted that the establishment of a Palestinian democracy would result in regional stability.

“If you resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, you’ve resolved the problem with extremism,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. “You will not have resolved the problem with extremism. The only way that the problem with extremism gets resolved is if there is a competing ideology that is one based on freedom and liberty and tolerance.”