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Assad Laid To Rest

After a day of frenzied mourning, solemn prayers and a bit of politicking, Syrian President Hafez Assad was laid to rest Tuesday in the mountains where he began his relentless climb to power, among fellow Alawite villagers who embraced him as "loyal to his friends, loyal to his country and loyal to his ideals."

CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports daylong funeral ceremonies began with pallbearers in camouflage fatigues and scarlet berets carrying the president's flag-draped casket from his Damascus home toward a hillside palace compound. The frenzy of mourning stretched from the capital to Syria's northern hills, where Assad rode donkeys and gathered fruit as a boy.

Reuters Photo
Hafez Assad is credited
with bringing Syria into
the modern era.

Mourners thronged Damascus, many carrying large photos of Assad, who died Saturday at age 69 after three decades of autocratic rule. At the head of the funeral procession, soldiers from the presidential guard clasped enormous wreaths of white flowers and red ribbons.

Emotions ran high as Assad's closed, flag-draped coffin was borne into the mosque he built to honor his mother in his hometown of Qardaha, 125 miles northwest of Damascus. The soldier-pallbearers struggled to keep mourners from pushing forward to kiss the coffin, trying to create order so prayers for the dead could begin.

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Bashar Assad, the president's oldest surviving son and heir apparent, was jostled at the head of the coffin as clerics, elderly men in business suits or the traditional dark cloaks and white headdresses of Alawite Muslims, and even soldiers pressed forward.

As Hafez Assad lay in state in Damascus earlier in the day, Bashar Assad, already well on the way to assuming power, met with crucial allies and others from around the world who had come to pay ther respects to the father and express their condolences to the son. Ordinary Syrians, meanwhile, looked to an uncertain future with an untested leader.

In Qardaha, Assad was among his own, the Alawite minority that had been sidelined by other Muslims, but which saw its members rise in business and the military along with Assad.

"His death is a national catastrophe," said Hafez al-Shuraiqi, 69, a former schoolmate of the president. "Qardaha is proud of its son. He was a great man, loyal to his friends, loyal to his country and loyal to his ideals. I shall miss him."

Reuters Photo
Bashar Assad stands in the
shadow of one of the many
larger-than-life posters of
his father, Hafez Assad.

Marwan Shikow, a parliament member and broadcaster who gave the eulogy in Qardaha, pleaded for calm in the initial disarray in the mosque. Prayers were chanted. Then Shikow's voice choked as he called to Hafez Assad:

"You will forever stay in our hearts," he said. "Why don't you talk to us? We know you can hear us."

It was near the end of what must have been a physically and emotionally draining day for Bashar Assad and other family members. Hafez Assad's body had been taken from his home in Damascus nearly 12 hours before, carried on a gun carriage through streets thronged with weeping, chanting mourners, placed in the official People's Palace for a six-hour lying in state, then flown north for burial.

After prayers at the mosque, Hafez Assad was entombed next to his eldest son Basil in a grand mausoleum on a hill overlooking Qardaha. Basil Assad died in a 1994 car crash.

Basil Assad had been his father's first choice to succeed him, taking the typical military path to power while his brother pursued a medical career. Young and politically untested, the 34-year-old Bashar had a chance during the lying in state in Damascus to step onto a world stage.

Leaders from dozens of countries came to pay respects to his father, who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades before his death Saturday at age 69.

Reuters Photo
For Syrians who have
never known a world
without Hafez Assad,
the grief is profound.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright bowed her head briefly before the casket and then conferred privately with Bashar Assad for about 20 minutes. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had quarreled bitterly with the elder Assad, saluted before the coffin, then kissed the son, clasping his hand and speaking intently for few moments.

The younger Assad was warmly greeted by French President Jacques Chirac. The two first met last November when Bashar Assad traveled to France as his father's envoy. The trip was considered significant because it was his first outside the Arab world on such an errand.

In Damascus and Qardaha, hundreds of thousands of mourners were on the streets, waving portraits of both Assads, some fainting in the scorching heat. For ordinary Syrians, the loss of the only president many had ever known sparked a ritual outpouring of grief that at times seemed staged, at other times almost unbearably heartfelt.

"I would rather I died and the president was still alive," said 67-year-old Mohammed al-Rifai Ali Masri, who witnessed the Damascus cortege passing by.

Discomfiting some, Rifaat Assad, estranged younger brother of Assad, made his own claim to power. Rifaat, who has been in exile in Europe since attempting to seize power in 1983, told The Associated Press in Beirut through a spokesman that he planned to return to Damascus at the "appropriate time" to contest his nephew's leadership.

In Qardaha, retired Brig. Ali Sfeir, 59, said most in the area saw Rifaat Assad's claim as baseless.

"President Assad gave us stability," he said. "It's an inheritance we will not squander."

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