KFAR CHABAD, Israel - It sits on the dusty plain like a mirage: A replica of a three-story, Brooklyn brownstone, so perfect that it even has security bars on the front windows.
It was built, many members of a rapidly growing Jewish movement believe, for the comfort of the Messiah. Thanks to the Iraqi crisis, they say, it will be occupied any day now.
Possibly by an elderly sage living in Brooklyn, New York.
``What is going on in Iraq is definitely a sign of the imminent arrival of the Messiah,'' said Rabbi Mendel Fogelman, a leader of the Israeli branch of the dynamic, modern and yet fundamentalist Chabad movement. ``When? Maybe before you get this story printed.
``It's going to be in all the papers. We're giving you a scoop - the arrival of the Messiah.''
The man most often cited by Chabad members as the potential Messiah is their spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher rebbe. Some followers say that he can heal the sick, foresee the future, mediate between God and man.
Schneerson, 88, never has claimed the honor, but he never has completely rejected it, either. Schneerson is the seventh rebbe of the movement; according to the Old Testament, the seventh leader of a particular dynasty could well be the Messiah.
One of the leading, if also controversial, figures in modern Judaism and a fervent supporter of Israel, Schneerson never visited the Jewish state. According to tradition, the Messiah will arrive in Israel only upon the beginning of the Era of Redemption, a period of complete peace and harmony.
Chabad members - all are Orthodox Jews - always have believed the Messiah's arrival was imminent. Now, re-interpreting ancient tracts that prophesied major confrontations between Moslem nations, Chabad followers insist the Messiah's arrival is more imminent than ever.
It might be a matter of mere days, many believe.
In a sermon broadcast to Chabad centers around the world, Schneerson two weeks ago told followers in Israel not to buy gas masks or stockpile food in response to the Gulf crisis.
``The events do not have to disturb the spiritual and physical space of a single Jew, because they are a preparation and preface for the actual coming of the Messiah,'' he said.
Rabbi Yossi Raichik, associate director of Chabad youth activities, said belief in the Messiah's arrival has been intensifying in recent years.
``The rebbe is very strong on this,'' Raichik said. ``He's brought it down from the abstract to the practical.''
Schneerson works out of a three-story brownstone at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. From there, he runs a complex, $50-million-a-year religious and social-services movement that is one of the fastest-growing of Judaism's ultra-Orthodox sects.
It has close to 1,000 offices in the United States and Israel, and also in places such as Hong Kong, Australia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Uruguay and Germany. Chabad colonies are particularly active in South Florida.
``There isn't a Jewish community today where you won't find an office of Chabad,'' Raichik said. ``Millions of people around the world consider the rebbe a spiritual leader.''
Other sources put the number at 250,000.
The group uses contributions and earnings to support a wide variety of social services, including health care, drug rehabilitation, educational and vocational programs and women's clubs.
About 4,000 followers live in Kfar Chabad, an Israeli town near Tel Aviv owned and operated by the group, and another 4,000 students attend classes there.
Many critics compare Chabad to Christian or secular cults, accusing it of using mind-control techniques to proselytize and enlist new members. Chabad officials angrily object to such assertions, saying they are not very interested in converting Christians and mostly are concerned with helping Jews to realize their full religious potential.
``The word `proselytize' offends me completely,'' Raichik said. ``It means to offer you a foreign object. That's not what we do.''
In any event, the three-story Brooklyn brownstone awaits the arrival of someone important fairly soon.
On the outside is the address: 770. Inside is a charity box, a small synagogue and offices, just as in Schneerson's building at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Street in Brooklyn.
Israeli Rabbi Yosef Hecht said: ``It's a dead ringer. It's a complete replica.''
Raichik said: ``We believe very strongly in the coming of the Messiah every day. When the Messiah comes, the rebbe will come to Israel.''