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Arafat In 'Final Hours'

With Yasser Arafat in what an aide called "the final phase of his life," the Palestinian leader's political heirs completed burial arrangements on Wednesday and decided on a temporary presidential successor.

Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath said Wednesday Arafat's brain is functioning only partially, and that all organs except his heart and lungs have failed.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said that Arafat was in his "final hours," telling France-2 television: "I hope that we can respect the final hours of a man who is approaching death."

An Islamic cleric read from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, at the bedside of the 75-year-old symbol of the Palestinian cause, who was in a deep coma, on life support, with bleeding in the brain and problems with other vital organs, Palestinian officials said.

Palestinian leaders accepted an offer from Egypt to host the main funeral in Cairo -- a site less problematic for foreign dignitaries -- before Arafat is buried at his sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Bulldozers pushed aside rubble and hauled away piles of wrecked cars to prepare the compound for his burial.

"It was decided that the body will be brought to Cairo and there will lie in state," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told The Associated Press. "After that, the body will be flown from Cairo to Ramallah."

The Palestinian leader wanted his gravesite to be in Jerusalem but Israel won't allow that, so Palestinians are preparing to lay him to rest in nearby Ramallah -- at least for the time being, reports CBS News Correspondent David Hawkins.

"The burial place in Ramallah is a temporary one because the last resting place of President Arafat will be in Jerusalem only," said Erekat.

The battered compound was the scene of Arafat's last stand where he weathered an Israeli siege and remained trapped and isolated for two-and-a-half years, until two weeks ago when he fell critically ill and was rushed to France for medical treatment.

France, which first sent a plane to bring Arafat to a Paris area military hospital on Oct. 29, would organize his repatriation, said Palestinian envoy to France Leila Shahid.

French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope confirmed: "We are preparing all the measures necessary, in contact with the family and the Palestinian Authority."

That includes flying his body home to the Middle East, reports CBS News Correspondent Elaine Cobbe.

Shahid told France-Info radio that the cleric, Taisser Bayoud Tamimi, who prayed at Arafat's bedside Wednesday, came to Paris to accompany Arafat "in the final phase of his life."

Arafat was "in a critical state" after a "complication in the state of all of his vital organs" and his coma "seems difficult to come out of," she said.

"The reality is that he is in the hands of God."

Tamimi said life support machines would not be turned off "as long as there are signs of life in the body of the president."

"It is prohibited in Islam," he said.

A French hospital spokesman, Gen. Christian Estripeau, told the newspaper Le Monde on Wednesday morning that Arafat's death "could be a question of hours, or, perhaps, days."

After that, Palestinian parliament speaker Rauhi Fattouh will become temporary president of the Palestinian Authority, top officials from the Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah movement decided.

Under Palestinian law, the speaker would be president for 60 days until new elections are held.

Fattouh is a virtual unknown with no political following, and many Palestinians felt he would not be up to the job, even for the 60 days provided by law. However, they set aside their misgivings to send a signal of unity.

Arafat controlled three top jobs -- head of the PLO, of Fatah and president of the Palestinian Authority.

Erekat, the Palestinian minister, said that immediately after Arafat's burial, the 18-member PLO Executive Committee would decide on a new PLO chief.

It is believed that the PLO's No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas, would win the vote, giving him the legitimacy to take the reins of power. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, has been acting has caretaker leader, along with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

The Israeli government said Wednesday it would not interfere with a respectful funeral, permitting Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians to attend, but allowing only about 1,000 VIPs from the Gaza Strip to go.

"We have no desire to provoke the Palestinian street or the Arab world, or the rest of the world," Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told Army Radio. "So when the man dies, we have to allow them to mourn him. In their eyes he's a hero."

Poraz told Army Radio that the Palestinian Authority would be in charge of security and Israeli forces would remain on the sidelines unless there was unrest, such as an attempted march on Jerusalem.

"There's going to be tremendous emotion, both in Palestine, in the Arab world, in the Muslim world," Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, said outside Arafat's hospital.

Tamimi, the cleric who heads the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Islam prohibits Arafat's life support from being switched off.

"It is absolutely rejected," he said. "As long as there are signs of life in the body of the president, he will remain under treatment."

While the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner's illness remains publicly undisclosed, his condition has steadily worsened during his 13 days at the Percy Military Training Hospital southwest of Paris.

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