Israel, along with various US allies around the world, was on high alert Sunday morning, after being  briefed by American diplomats about an expected release of classified US files by the WikiLeaks website that is likely to cause international embarrassment and could damage some nations’ relations with the United States.

The release of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables is expected in the next 24 hours, although WikiLeaks has not been specific about the timing. There has been some speculation that the cables could be posted on the Web late Sunday night.

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The cables are thought to include private, candid assessments of foreign leaders and governments and could erode trust in the US as a diplomatic partner.

An Israeli government source said that already last Wednesday the US had informed Israel that it could be mentioned in the anticipated WikiLeaks release of the classified US cables and documents.

“They did not want us to hear about it from the media.

We appreciated the phone call and we thanked them for giving us the heads up,” the official said.

Another Israeli official added that the American Embassy in Tel Aviv had been calling Israelis named in the documents in order to warn them in advance. The list includes officials in the Foreign Ministry, as well as aides to prime ministers, this official said.

According to the International Business Times, which quoted a posting it saw briefly on Der Spiegel’s website, the documents could include 251,287 cables and 8,000 diplomatic directives.

Most of the cables are from the last five years. Some 9,005 documents are from the first two months of 2010.

The International Business Times reported that Der Spiegel, The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and El País had access to the files in advance.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field said Friday that his government had been told of “the likely content of these leaks” by US Ambassador Louis Susman. Field declined to say what Britain had been warned to expect.

“I don’t want to speculate about precisely what is going to be leaked before it is leaked,” Field said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said US diplomats were continuing the process of warning governments around the world about what might be in the documents. Many fear the cables will embarrass the US and its allies, and reveal sensitive details of how the country conducts relations with others.

“We are all bracing for what may be coming and condemn WikiLeaks for the release of classified material,” he said. “It will place lives and interests at risk. It is irresponsible.”

“These revelations are harmful to the United States and our interests,” Crowley said. “They are going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world.”

Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said he spoke Friday with the US State Department, which told him that there would be documents regarding Italy in the leak, “but the content can’t be anticipated.”

“We’re talking about thousands and thousands of classified documents that the US will not comment on, as is their custom,” Frattini said.

The governments of Canada and Norway also said they had been briefed by US officials.

In Iraq, US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey told reporters that the leaks represent a serious obstacle to international diplomacy.

“We are worried about additional documents coming out,” he said.

“WikiLeaks are an absolutely awful impediment to my business, which is to be able to have discussions in confidence with people. I do not understand the motivation for releasing these documents. They will not help, they will simply hurt our ability to do our work here.”

In Norway, US officials released a statement from the ambassador to the newspaper Dagbladet with the understanding that it would not be published until after the WikiLeaks material came out, but the newspaper published the material ahead of time.

It quoted US Ambassador to Norway Barry White saying that, while he could not vouch for the authenticity of the documents, he expected them to contain US officials’ candid assessments of political leaders and movements in other countries. He said diplomats had to be able to have private, honest discussions to do their jobs.

Diplomatic cables are internal documents that would include a range of secret communications between US diplomatic outposts and State Department headquarters in Washington.

WikiLeaks has said the release will be seven times the size of its October leak of 400,000 Iraq war documents, already the biggest leak in US intelligence history.

The US says it has known for some time that WikiLeaks held the diplomatic cables. No one has been charged with passing them to the website, but suspicion focuses on US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst arrested in Iraq in June and charged over an earlier leak.

Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, said Friday that he had been “told that the person responsible for this leak has been arrested.”

The Italian Foreign Ministry later said Frattini was talking about Manning.

WikiLeaks, which also has released secret US documents about the war in Afghanistan, was founded by Julian Assange.

The Australian former computer hacker is currently wanted by Sweden for questioning in a drawn-out rape probe. Assange, 39, is suspected of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. He has denied the allegations, which stem from his encounters with two women during a visit to Sweden.

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.

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