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Arafat In 'Final Phase' Of Life

A top Islamic cleric rushed to Yasser Arafat's hospital bedside Wednesday, as a spokeswoman for the 75-year-old Palestinian leader said he is in the "final phase" of his life.

"I'm here to be by my longtime friend's side in his time of need and to pray for his speedy recovery," said the cleric, Taisser Bayoud Tamimi.

Asked by reporters outside the hospital if Arafat's life support would be turned off, Tamimi, who heads the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, shouted: "It is absolutely rejected.

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

Palestinian envoy Leila Shahid underscored the same point, in an interview with France-Info radio about Tamimi's hospital visit.

"It is clear, as for a Christian, as for a Jew, that a religious man needs to be with his patient when he is in the final phase of his life," Shahid said. "That is why he is here."

Tuesday, doctors said Arafat's coma had deepened and his caretaker government chose a burial site and began preparing for a funeral.

Shahid said Wednesday that Arafat is still "in a deep coma," suffering from a "complication in the state of all of his vital organs."

He is "in a critical state," said Shahid. "The reality is that he is in the hands of God."

At a press conference Tuesday in Ramallah, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said doctors were trying to relieve bleeding from a severe brain hemorrhage, which can cause brain damage.

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that French doctors had told the Palestinian delegation that kind of bleeding meant Arafat's death could be expected within 24 hours.

Shahid said doctors at the Percy Military Training Hospital are fighting to keep Arafat alive. The physicians "are doing everything, in the intensive care unit," she said.

On Tuesday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said after visiting the hospital that Arafat's major organs were still functioning, but that he was on a respirator and feeding tubes.

Although Arafat reportedly has been comatose for a week, Shaath ruled out suggestions the PLO chief would be taken off life support. "He will live or die depending on his body's ability to resist and on the will of God," Shaath said.

Because Arafat has no designated successor, and has been such an overwhelming figure in his influence in the Mideast, both the Palestinians and the Israelis have been making contingency plans in the event of Arafat's death.

Both are worried about the possibility of riots and other escalations of violence, and both are looking ahead to the question of who would be the new leader or leaders, and the impact of that change on the Mideast peace process.

Palestinian leaders have decided that when the time comes, they will bury Arafat at his sandbagged West Bank headquarters, known as the Muqata, in Ramallah and turn it into a shrine, defusing a potential conflict with Israel by dropping a demand for a Jerusalem burial.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with security chiefs Wednesday and then convened his security Cabinet, which agreed in principle to the Ramallah burial site.

Israel Army radio said the Cabinet is still discussing security arrangements and other operational matters.

Egypt has offered to host the main funeral in Cairo before a Ramallah burial.

A ceremony in Cairo would make it possible for heads of states to pay their respects to Arafat without traveling to the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Arab leaders would be able to attend, sidestepping political complications about traveling to Israel.

The central committee of Arafat's Fatah party and the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee also were meeting Wednesday to deal with funeral arrangments and a successor to Arafat. "Many issues related to Arafat's burial, if he dies, have to be discussed," said Abbas Zaki, a Fatah central committee member.

While the details of Arafat's illness remains publicly undisclosed, his condition has steadily worsened since he was flown to a military hospital outside Paris on Oct. 29.

Shaath gave the first detailed description of Arafat's treatment at a Paris news conference, after days of confusing and often conflicting reports.

Shaath said he could not confirm a brain hemorrhage, but added scans showed Arafat's "brain remains sound."

He said Arafat was receiving breathing assistance from a respirator and getting nutrition intravenously.

"These instruments are there, of course. He's also attached to monitoring equipment," Shaath said. "So he has lots of equipment there but, as I said, nobody has ever thought of shutting them off."

The French medical team treating Arafat publicly acknowledged his comatose condition for the first time Tuesday and said it had worsened.

Gen. Christian Estripeau, a spokesman for Percy Military Training Hospital, declined to offer a prognosis but said the deterioration in Arafat's condition marked "a significant stage."

Shaath was part of a delegation led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, the No. 2 man behind Arafat in the PLO. The group returned to the West Bank early Wednesday after a 24-hour visit.

Shaath's news conference underlined that the Palestinian leadership was now in control of information about Arafat.

Palestinian officials had been denied access by Arafat's wife, Suha, who used France's strict privacy laws that give authority to the family.

Shaath said a dramatic disagreement with Arafat's wife, who had accused the visiting Palestinians of trying to topple their longtime leader, had been smoothed over and that she embraced delegation members during their two-hour visit to the hospital.

"She is the wife of a great man, our leader, and is the mother of his only daughter," Shaath said. "She will always be respected and protected by the Palestinian people."

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