PARIS (AP) – A deeply comatose Yasser Arafat clung to life Tuesday after suffering another downturn, his major organs still functioning but his survival dependent “on the will of God,” the Palestinian foreign minister said.

Palestinian leaders made preparations for Arafat’s eventual death. They said they would bury Arafat at his sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank and turn the site into a shrine.

But the 75-year-old leader, whose condition has steadily worsened since he was flown to a military hospital outside Paris on Oct. 29, would not be removed from life support, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said.

On Wednesday, Taissir Dayut Tamimi, a top Islamic cleric, was rushing to Arafat’s hospital bedside. Shaath called Tamimi “a very close friend” of Arafat and said that “we think having a religious person beside him in these difficult moments is relevant.”

He dismissed speculation that Tamimi, head of the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, could advise on removing Arafat from life support. “No mufti in the world has the right to do that,” Shaath said.

Shaath discounted reports that Arafat’s organs had failed.

“His brain, his heart and his lungs are still functioning and he is alive,” Shaath said after he and other Palestinian officials met with Arafat’s doctors, his wife and French President Jacques Chirac.

“He will live or die depending on his body’s ability to resist and on the will of God,” Shaath said.

Shaath’s remarks at a news conference underlined that the Palestinian leadership was now in control of information about Arafat after days of confusing and often conflicting reports about his undisclosed illness. 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 also tried to dispel concerns about the possibility for chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the event of Arafat’s death and said the leadership transition would be smooth.

“What I would say is that on the political level, our government is functioning,” he said.

On a visit to Mexico, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration was ready to engage with the emerging Palestinian leadership to make progress toward establishing a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

Shaath was part of a senior Palestinian delegation led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, the No. 2 man behind Arafat in the Palestine Liberation Organization. The group left for Jordan late Tuesday after a 24-hour visit to the French capital.

The Palestinian deputy Parliament speaker, Hassan Khreishe, told The Associated Press that leaders decided Arafat should be buried at his West Bank headquarters, known as the Muqata. Arafat was cooped up in his battered offices by Israel’s army for nearly three years, and the site has become a symbol to Palestinians of their resistance to Israeli occupation.

“We formed a committee to handle Arafat’s burial in the event of his death, and the burial will be in the Muqata,” Khreishe said.

The decision was likely to head off a fight with Israel’s government over a grave site for Arafat. Palestinian officials had wanted to bury their leader in Jerusalem, which they claim as the capital of their envisioned state, but Israel refused.

A top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Asaf Shariv, said the government would consider Ramallah as a burial site.

Palestinian officials said Egypt’s government offered late Tuesday to hold a memorial service for Arafat in Cairo before a Ramallah burial and they said the proposal was being considered.

A Palestinian official stressed that a Ramallah grave would only be considered temporary, with the ultimate goal remaining burial in Jerusalem. The official said the decision to create a burial shrine at the Muqata was made by Qureia and Abbas, the caretaker leaders during Arafat’s illness.

Qureia has assumed some emergency financial and administrative powers and Abbas has presided at meetings of the PLO’s executive committee. But neither has much grass-roots support among Palestinians or important militant groups, and it isn’t clear whether one of them or someone else might emerge as a replacement for Arafat, who did not groom a successor.

The Palestinian charter calls for the speaker of the parliament to become interim president for a maximum of 60 days after Arafat’s death, to allow an election.

Shaath, in the first detailed description of Arafat’s treatment, said the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner 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.”

A top Palestinian official, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, said Arafat suffered a brain hemorrhage Monday night, but Shaath said he could not confirm that and said scans showed Arafat’s “brain remains sound.” Such bleeding often causes brain damage.

Edward Abington, the former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, said Arafat was near death. “It’s only a matter of hours,” Abington told AP in a telephone interview from Ramallah.

The French medical team treating Arafat publicly acknowledged for the first time that he was in a coma, saying he had been comatose for a week.

“President Yasser Arafat’s health worsened in the night,” said Gen. Christian Estripeau, a spokesman for Percy Military Training Hospital. “His coma, which led to his admission to the intensive care unit, became deeper this morning.”

Estripeau declined to offer a prognosis but said the deterioration in Arafat’s condition marked “a significant stage.”

A coma is a profound state of unconsciousness. Patients are unable to move or respond to their environment. There are several levels of coma and patients may, or may not, progress through them. The responsiveness of the brain lessens as the coma deepens and when it becomes more profound, normal body reflexes are lost and patients no longer respond, even to pain.

The chances of recovery depend on the severity of the underlying cause.

Shaath said that 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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