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Arafat Takes Turn for the Worse

Yasser Arafat (search) collapsed Wednesday night, was unconscious for about 10 minutes and remained in a "very difficult situation," Palestinian officials said. A team of Jordanian doctors was urgently summoned to treat the ailing Palestinian leader.

A Palestinian official in Arafat's office said the Palestinian leader had created a special comnior officials, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), to run Palestinian affairs while Arafat was incapacitated.

However, other Palestinian officials, including his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh, denied that such a committee had been formed.

Arafat was eating soup during a meeting with Qureia, his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas (search), and another official between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. (2 p.m. or 3 p.m. EDT) when he vomited, according to a bodyguard who was in the compound at the time.

The 75-year-old Arafat was taken to the clinic inside the compound, where he collapsed and was unconscious for about 10 minutes, the guard said. His doctors were urgently summoned.

On news that Arafat's health was worsening, scores of top Palestinian officials descended on the sandbagged, partially demolished Ramallah compound where he has been confined for 2 1/2 years. The officials milled around the courtyard, waiting for news outside Arafat's three-story building that was bathed in spotlights.

Israeli security officials said Arafat's wife, Suha, who lives in France with their young daughter, was expected to arrive Thursday. The Jordanian doctors were also due Thursday.

An official in Arafat's office said the Palestinian leader had deputized Qureia, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and Salim Zaanoun, head of the Palestinian National Council, to run the PLO and the Palestinian Authority while he is ill.

But when asked if Arafat had set up such a committee, Abu Rdeneh said: "Nothing like that."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling in Michigan with President Bush, said U.S. officials were monitoring the situation.

Arafat has been known to be ill for two weeks, but reports about his ailment have varied widely.

Palestinian officials said he had the flu. Israeli officials speculated he might have stomach cancer, but two of his doctors said Wednesday a blood test and a biopsy of tissue from his digestive tract showed no evidence of cancer.

On Tuesday, a hospital official said Arafat was suffering from a large gallstone. The gallstone, while extremely painful, is not life-threatening and can be easily treated, the official told AP.

Arafat has shown symptoms of Parkinson's disease since the late 1990s.

As Arafat's condition worsened Wednesday, a senior Palestinian official told The Associated Press that a decision to move Arafat from his compound to a hospital would be made purely on medical grounds, without considering politics. Israel had said Monday it would allow Arafat to leave the compound for the hospital and return afterward, something the Israelis had refused to guarantee during Arafat's 21/2 year confinement to his Ramallah compound.

A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said the Palestinians had asked Israel to allow foreign doctors to come treat Arafat.

"The prime minister immediately instructed the security officials and others involved to facilitate the transfer and any medical equipment and facilities Arafat might need," the official said, adding that Israel would also allow Arafat to be transferred to any medical facility in the world.

Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, a Jordanian doctor who is heading the team due to arrive Thursday, told AP that he was urgently summoned to Arafat's compound but was given no details.

"I tried to get a medical report from them. I couldn't get anything," he said.

Arafat's health crisis has highlighted how unprepared the Palestinians are for their leader's death, making a chaotic transition period all but inevitable. Arafat refuses to groom a successor; rival security chiefs already have battled each other in the streets.

Qureia and Abbas have both been touted as possible political heirs to Arafat, though the Palestinian leader has bickered with both and blocked their attempts to limit his powers.

No leader of Arafat's stature and popularity is waiting in the wings, said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. "It's only natural to expect that there would be either a power struggle or there would be a loss of cohesion," she said.

Analysts said it could take years for a leader to emerge, hurting prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. However, Israel and the United States hold out hope that a post-Arafat Middle East will be more conducive to peace because of what they say is Arafat's blind eye to terror and opposition to reform.

Polls show the second most popular Palestinian after Arafat is Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Fatah's young guard. But Barghouti is serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison for involvement in deadly shooting attacks.

On paper, at least, a path of succession has been charted. The parliament speaker would replace Arafat as Palestinian Authority president for 60 days, until elections are held. However, current speaker Rauhi Fattouh is a bland backbencher uncertain to hold on during a turbulent transition period, and timely elections appear unlikely.

Arafat's other post, as PLO chief, would be filled, at least temporarily, by Abbas.

During Arafat's long confinement in the compound, doctors have equipped two rooms with medical equipment, including X-ray, ultrasound machines and emergency resuscitation gear.

In tests this week, Arafat was in his pajamas and wore a blue wool hat, instead of his trademark black-and-white checkered headscarf, an official on the medical team said.

The medical official said Arafat continues to sleep in a small room, which has only one window and is furnished with a bed and a closet, even though a new, sunnier room has been refurbished for him on another floor.

From his small window, Arafat looks out on rubble and heaps of cars flattened in previous Israeli raids.