JERUSALEM Israel staged a mass drill on Thursday, simulating a missile attack in the center of the country at a time of intense speculation that the Jewish state could launch strikes on Iran, although the military dismissed any link.
Civil defense drills happen several times a year in Israel and the military said this exercise, which caused air-raid sirens to ring out around the Tel Aviv area, had been planned months in advance.
There has been a week-long surge of speculation in Israeli media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to secure cabinet consensus for an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.
On Wednesday, Israel test-fired a missile from a military base, with media later reporting that it was probably a Jericho 3 missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Later the same day, the Israeli Defense Forces announced that the air force had concluded a week-long exercise in Sardinia "practicing operations in (a) vast, foreign land."
Speculation about a possible Israeli attack on Iran has increased ahead of a report by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, next week, which Western diplomats expect will suggest Iran is getting closer to being able to build an atomic bomb.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday he had discussed Iran with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the sidelines of a summit in Cannes.
"One (issue) in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA is scheduled to release a report on Iran's nuclear programme next week and President Sarkozy and I agree on the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations," Obama said.
Thursday's simulation of a missile attack involved various Israeli emergency services, with ambulance workers and soldiers, some wearing masks and equipment to protect against chemical weapons, practicing treating the wounded.
"This drill was part of the scheduled training program for 2011 and is not influenced by the current events," the military said in a statement.
Israeli leaders have long said that all options are on the table in tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions, but they have thrown support behind international sanctions led by the United States meant to curb the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
Iran, which opposes Israel's existence, denies that it is seeking to make a nuclear bomb, saying it is enriching uranium only to power reactors for electricity generation.
Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East's sole atomic arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat.
A poll on Thursday showed that Israelis were split over the prospect of a strike on Iran, with 41 percent in favor of an attack and 39 percent against. Haaretz newspaper said there was a 4.6 percent margin of error in the survey of 495 people.
Israeli military officials have said in private that any strike on Iran would likely spark swift retaliation from Iran itself and its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah and Hamas are believed to have rockets capable of hitting most places within Israel.
(Reporting by Rami Amichai and Nir Elias)