World leaders mourn Arafat at funeral
Presidents and kings mourned Yasser Arafat on Friday, with his wooden coffin draped in the Palestinian flag and borne on a horse-drawn guncarriage ¡ª a state funeral for a leader who symbolized the aspirations of Palestinians for statehood.
After humble prayers in a mosque, a military band in scarlet played a funeral dirge and a high-stepping honor guard carried wreaths at the head of an almost-triumphant procession.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as well as Farouk Kaddoumi, the newly chosen head of the Fatah organization, and Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PLO executive committee, were among those in the front row of about 60 world leaders and other dignitaries trailing the casket down Salah Salem Street, which was closed to the public.
The service, amid high-security at the Galaa Club, a military compound in northern Cairo, was aired live on Egyptian television, although all other media was barred from the mosque and tent where most dignitaries sat through the prayers.
"He has served his people all his life, until he faced his God, with courage and honesty. Let us pray for his soul," the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi told the gathered dignitaries. Throughout the ceremony Egyptian television played Quranic recitations, including a verse: "After hardship, ease."
Arafat's widow, Suha, watched with their daughter, and both wept as the coffin was lifted from the carriage.
After the funeral, Arafat's coffin was expected to be taken to the Almaza military base just behind the club. From there, it was to be flown to el-Arish, in Egypt's northeastern Sinai Peninsula, according to Palestinian coordinator Hani Jebour. He said two Jordanian helicopters would then ferry the coffin and its accompanying delegation to Arafat's Ramallah compound, where he was kept a virtual prisoner in his final years, for burial before sunset.
Arafat, who died Thursday in Paris, was mourned by Palestinians at home and in refugee camps across the region who had hoped he would one day lead them back to Jerusalem, and by Arabs who had seen him as an inspiring leader. Arab and Israeli authorities took steps to prevent any emotional outpouring from evolving into riots, and many countries declared official mourning periods for Palestinian leader.
Harried preparations for Arafat's grave were made in Ramallah. Early Friday, workers raked sand to level the ground as they laid gray marble slabs around the base of the open, stone-lined, tomb. The Palestinians consider the grave site as temporary ¡ª a place for Arafat's body until the day they hope they can honor his request to be buried in Jerusalem.
Flags flew at half-staff in the compound, where Palestinian policemen rehearsed rifle drills for the ceremony. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia briefly stopped by to inspect progress on Arafat's tomb, while outside a few young men sat, heads clasped in their hands, next to posters of Arafat and piles of wilting flowers.
Security was a concern throughout Cairo, with the possibility of demonstrations at mosques and in public squares. The Arab public ¡ª among whom Arafat was popular ¡ª was told to stay away from the area.
Early Friday, black-uniformed Egyptian police lined Saleh Salem Street near the Galaa Club, where the funeral began at 10 a.m. (3 a.m. EST), an hour earlier than officials had said it would. An armed soldier watched over the club from high in a minaret of the mosque.
After a traditional funeral prayer lasting only a couple of minutes, eight dark-suited pallbearers carried the casket out of the mosque and handed it to an Egyptian honor guard. They placed it inside a silver hearse and drove away from the mosque; the carriage stood motionless flanked by Egyptian honor guards.
Egyptian television showed pictures of Mubarak arriving at the colorful, red-carpeted tent on the grounds of the military club. There, Farouk Kaddoumi, newly chosen leader of the Fatah organization, and Abbas could be seen standing with Arafat's nephew, Palestinian envoy to the United Nations Nasser al-Kidwa, to receive condolences.
Among the dignitaries inside the tent were Syrian President Bashar Assad, Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah of Brunei, South African President Thabo Mbeki, European Union Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana and Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church.
U.N. envoy for the Middle East and a key player in the talks that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accord, Terje Roed-Larsen, briefly left the reception tent to give an interview to The Associated Press.
"I grieve with the Palestinian people. The symbol of Palestinian identity, the symbol of their aspirations for nationhood, the symbol of their aspirations for a Palestinian state has passed away," Roed-Larsen said. "Yasser Arafat was more important for Palestinian identity than their flag and their national anthem."
He said he hoped the new Palestinian leadership would return to peace negotiations with Israel.
A plane carrying Arafat's coffin arrived late Thursday at Cairo airport from a Paris military base. Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian president, hugged Arafat's widow, Suha, after she alighted.
Arafat's coffin was then taken to the nearby Galaa Club, a compound that includes a hospital, mosque and social club for military officers. It remained in the hospital until being taken to the mosque. Beyond usual security concerns, the funeral was designed to prevent any outpouring of public emotion that could evolve into angry protests or merely show the late Palestinian leader as more popular than other Arab leaders. Many Arabs have accused their own governments of doing too little to help the Palestinians through the latest uprising.
Egyptian authorities went out of their way to tell the public to steer clear of the suburban Cairo funeral.
"I would like to draw your attention to something that is very important: It's an official military funeral and not open to the public," Col. Ahmed Assem of the Interior Ministry told Egypt's state-run television on Thursday.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo warned Americans to avoid areas where spontaneous protests might occur, including the downtown Tahrir Square, a traditional site of demonstrations.
In Jerusalem, Israeli police also took steps to prevent rioting, with plans to impose restrictions on entry to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound for prayers on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. A police statement said only men over 45 with Israeli identification cards will be allowed to enter the mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest shrine. The restrictions do not apply to women.