CLAMART, France – Palestinian leaders rushed to Paris on Monday to check on the critically ill Yasser Arafat (search), but hospital officials said visiting rights were restricted — setting the stage for a dramatic showdown between the delegation and Arafat's wife.
Early Monday, Suha Arafat (search) accused the leadership — including top lieutenants Ahmed Qureia (search) and Mahmoud Abbas (search) — of coming to the French capital with the sole intention of usurping her husband's role as head of the Palestinian Authority.
"I tell you they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive," she shouted, using Arafat's nom de guerre, in a furious telephone call with Al-Jazeera television from the 75-year-old Arafat's bedside in a hospital southwest of Paris.
"He is all right, and he is going home," she insisted.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Arafat aide, called a news conference in the West Bank to dispute the claims. "What came from Mrs. Arafat doesn't represent our people," he said, accusing her of wanting "to be the lone decision maker."
And Palestinian Cabinet minister Salah Taamri said, "We are Yasser Arafat's family. We knew Yasser Arafat even before Mrs. Suha Arafat was born. We care for Yasser Arafat and no one has the right to deny the truth from the Palestinian people."
The Palestinian leadership abruptly called off the Paris trip, then reversed its decision. Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, and Abbas, a former prime minister and the current PLO deputy chairman, landed in France late Monday on a private jet.
The prospect of their being barred from Arafat's hospital bedside was bound to inflame an increasingly tense power struggle.
Suha Arafat, his wife of 13 years and mother of his daughter, seems to have aligned herself with hard-liners who apparently seek to take over the Palestinian leadership in a post-Arafat era, though some Palestinian officials said her motives are more financial. According to a senior official in Arafat's office, she has received monthly payments of $100,000 from Palestinian coffers and is widely believed to have control of vast funds collected by the PLO.
This year, French prosecutors launched a money-laundering probe into transfers of $11.4 million into her accounts. She has refused to talk to reporters about Palestinian finances. Suha Arafat, 41, lives in Paris and has not been to the West Bank or seen her husband since the latest round of Palestinian violence began in 2000.
Some Palestinians have complained Suha Arafat has gained too much power, as she controls the flow of information about her husband's condition and has taken charge of access to the ailing leader.
"She is not part of the Palestinian leadership," Arafat security adviser Jibril Rajoub told Israel's Channel Two TV.
On their trip to Paris, Qureia and Abbas, who is considered a likely successor to Arafat, were accompanied by Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh. They drove straight from the airport in a nine-car convoy to a hotel a few miles from the hospital.
"Tomorrow they will see the French officials and visit President Arafat in his hospital," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, one of Arafat's senior aides. They were also to meet French President Jacques Chirac.
Arafat was in intensive care Monday and his condition had not changed, a hospital spokesman said.
"He remains there and his condition is stable," spokesman Gen. Christian Estripeau told reporters at the Percy Military Training Hospital. However, "the medical situation of President Arafat compels us to restrict visitors," he added.
Estripeau said Arafat had "blood anomalies" when he was hospitalized Oct. 29 and that, under treatment, his condition initially improved.
But, "after a phase of five days ... the state of health of President Yasser Arafat became worrisome and necessitated his transfer into intensive care," he added.
Palestinians have been making contingency plans in the event of Arafat's death.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to reporters while en route to Mexico City, was cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a smooth political transition for the Palestinians.
"I have been impressed by the manner in which the Palestinian leaders back in the territories have been discussing among themselves how to move forward, not yet knowing what Arafat's fate is."
He said another positive sign has been a recent decline in violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Qureia has assumed some emergency financial and administrative powers. Abbas has chaired a series of meetings of the PLO executive committee. But neither politician has much grass-roots support among Palestinians or important militant groups.