Doctors have increasingly expressed concern that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shows no signs of waking up from his induced coma, Israeli media reported Friday, as the hospital said the Israeli leader's condition remained "critical but stable."
Nine days after suffering a massive stroke, Sharon's condition was unchanged on Friday, according to a statement by the Hadassah Hospital.
The 77-year-old leader was put in a medically induced coma to give him time to recover after his Jan. 4 stroke, but in recent days doctors have gradually weaned him off the sedatives.
Doctors have reported only slight improvement in Sharon's condition in the past several days, centering on small movements of limbs in response to pain. He was still in "critical but stable" condition on Friday, the hospital said.
Hadassah Hospital officials and doctors were quoted by Israel TV's Channel 10 and Israel Army Radio as saying they are worried Sharon still shows no signs of emerging from his coma.
However, Hadassah spokesman Ron Krumer said there is no firm timeline for when Sharon should open his eyes. "This is something that differs from one patient to another," he said.
A brain scan Thursday showed the remnants of blood in his brain have been absorbed, the hospital said. In response, doctors removed a tube they had inserted into his skull to relieve pressure on his brain.
The longer it takes for Sharon to regain consciousness, however, the greater the concern about extensive brain damage.
"If there was no brain damage, I would have expected him to wake up at this point," said Dr. John Martin, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College in London. Martin is not involved in Sharon's treatment.
The stroke has raised questions about whether Sharon's Kadima party, which enjoyed a strong lead in opinion polls ahead of March 28 elections, could survive without its dominant founder. But new opinion polls released Friday showed Kadima strengthening its lead under Sharon's heir apparent, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
In a Dahaf poll published in the Yediot Ahronot daily, Kadima would win 42 of 120 parliamentary seats, up three from a previous survey. The poll of 501 eligible voters had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
A Teleseker survey published in the Maariv daily forecast 43 seats for Kadima. The poll surveyed 502 eligible voters and had a margin of error of 4.4 points.
Both polls put Kadima far ahead of its rivals Labor and Likud and would put the party in a commanding position to form a new government.
Sharon quit the hard-line Likud in November to form Kadima, saying it would give him more freedom to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians. Top politicians from Likud and Labor joined him.
Olmert, 60, has worked to project an image of stability, holding a series of meetings and assuring the public that the government continues to function.
Olmert met with two U.S. Mideast envoys on Friday, discussing the upcoming Palestinian legislative election, Olmert's office said in a statement.
U.S. State Department official David Welch later expressed concerns about the Islamic group Hamas — which polls show will make a strong showing in the Jan. 25 vote — in a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
"A Palestinian partner must be committed to preventing violence and terror," Welch said. "There should be no place in the political process for groups and individuals who refuse to renounce terror and violence and refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist."
Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and considered a terrorist group by the U.S. However, Israel has reluctantly agreed to let the group contest the elections.