A key Israeli ultra-Orthodox religious party has agreed to join forces with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, clearing the way for a unity government needed to push through Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon's Likud coalition lost its parliamentary majority last year, when some right-wing parties opposed to the Gaza withdrawal quit the government.

Wednesday's decision by the United Torah Judaism party to join with Mr. Sharon gives the Israeli leader at least 66 votes in the 120-member Knesset. Last week, the opposition Labor party also agreed to join the coalition.

Hours after the United Torah decision, the prime minister said he expects to present parliament with a national unity government by next week.

The withdrawal of 8,200 Israeli settlers from Gaza and four small West Bank enclaves is set to begin later this year.

Some information for this report provided by AP and AFP.