JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remained in an induced coma early today and battling for his life, hospital officials said, after more than eight hours of surgery to stop severe bleeding in his brain from the stroke he suffered Wednesday night.
Israelis offered prayers for the recovery of Sharon, 77, but there was growing awareness that his larger-than-life career as one of the country's foremost military and political leaders was drawing to a close.
Doctors at Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital, where Sharon underwent the surgery, said he was in serious but stable condition and would remain in the drug-induced coma for up 72 hours to "recover from severe trauma."
Only then, said Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, Hadassah's director general, would physicians be able to assess the damage to the prime minister's physical and cognitive abilities. "We are fighting for the life of the prime minister, with no compromise," Mor-Yosef said last night.
While there were many questions about Sharon's chances of survival, political leaders began preparing themselves and the country for life without him.
Ehud Olmert, Sharon's deputy prime minister, officially assumed Sharon's powers during an emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday morning. Sitting beside Sharon's empty chair at the head of a large oval table, Olmert assured Israelis that the government would continue to function despite Sharon's absence.
"This is a difficult time and we -- all of us -- will be up to the task," said Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem and close confidant of Sharon's.
Still, there was unease created by the sudden turn of events. Sharon's deteriorating health comes less than three months before a general election that the prime minister's new centrist party had been heavily favored to win.
Israel's stock market tumbled more than 5 percent yesterday.
Palestinians meanwhile are scheduled to hold parliamentary elections Jan. 25, although Israel's refusal to allow Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote and the uncertain prospects of the long-dominant party, Fatah, might lead Palestinian officials to postpone the election.
Palestinians, like Israelis, acknowledged that Sharon's unique stature, and his ability to convince his countrymen to follow him. Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, said he was following Sharon's condition with "great worry," and last night he telephoned Olmert to express his concern for the prime minister.
Other Palestinian officials said they worried about the future of the peace process without Sharon representing Israel. "On a purely humanitarian level we feel sorry for Mr. Sharon," Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Sha'ath told reporters. "Politically, it will increase the uncertainty we are facing to get back to the peace process.
"It is highly unpredictable to tell what will happen."
There were conflicting reports last night about Sharon's medical condition. Responding to reports that Sharon was brain-dead, Mor-Yosef said that Sharon's pupils were reacting to light, evidence that his brain is still functioning. Mor-Yosef also told reporters that the surgery was conducted on the right side of the brain, making it less likely that speech and comprehension would be affected.
Yesterday, many medical experts offered little hope that Sharon, given his age and health problems, would be able to return to his duties as prime minister.
"The chances of living after a massive brain event is small to begin with and the ability to function reasonably or even to return to the basic previous state of functioning is even smaller," Dr. Zvi Ram, head of neurosurgery Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, told Israeli Radio. "The prognosis is not good."
Israel's two chief rabbis asked Jews to recite psalms and pray for Sharon's health. Saying "we are very, very worried," Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said he was praying for "mercy from Heaven."
Sharon suffered his second stroke in a month as he appeared to be at the height of his political powers. And Israelis seemed shaken by the prospect of moving ahead without him.
"Israel will have to part in one way or another from its father figure," commentator Yair Lapid said in yesterday's edition of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily newspaper. "Even if Sharon will miraculously recovers it is clear now he will not be here always to take care of us."
Once reviled by his critics as a reckless military commander and a Cabinet minister who ushered the country into a costly war in Lebanon, Sharon rescued his reputation and his career, becoming prime minister in 2001.
Entering office during a Palestinian uprising that included suicide bombings and other attacks by militants, Sharon promised to deliver security and peace. He fortified Israel by building a controversial barrier separating the West Bank from Israel to stop suicide bombing and attacks by Palestinian militants.