CLAMART, France – Yasser Arafat (search) has suffered brain damage and kidney and liver failure, the Palestinian prime minister said Wednesday, but a top Muslim cleric ruled out any possibility of life support being turned off.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said late Wednesday that the Palestinian leader was in his "final hours," telling France-2 television: "I hope that we can respect the final hours of a man who is approaching death."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath (search) said Arafat, who was in a deep coma connected to a respirator and a feeding tube, had suffered brain damage because of a hemorrhage. Only his heart and lungs were still functioning, Shaath said.
A top Islamic cleric, Taisser Bayoud Tamimi (search), read Wednesday from the Quran at Arafat's bedside and said no attempt would be made to remove him from life support.
"As long as there are signs of life in the body of the president, he will remain under treatment," said Tamimi. "It is prohibited in Islam."
Tamimi, who heads the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said during more than an hour with Arafat, he "prayed to God for his recovery." Tamimi returned to the hospital in the evening, staying for a time before leaving.
As word spread that Arafat was close to death, nearly one thousand Palestinians took to the narrow streets and alleys of Yarmouk refugee camp near Syria's capital of Damascus on Wednesday night, shouting their love for the Palestinian leader.
"Don't say Abu Ammar is dead!" the demonstrators chanted, referring to the one-time guerrilla leader by his nom de guerre. "Yasser is with us alive."
As Arafat's condition deteriorated, aides made plans to fly his body to Cairo for a funeral service, then to his Ramallah headquarters for burial. Palestinians also selected Arafat's immediate successor, saying parliament speaker Rauhi Fattouh would become president of the Palestinian Authority until elections are held in 60 days.
France, which first sent a plane to bring Arafat to a Paris area military hospital on Oct. 29, would organize his repatriation, said the Palestinian envoy to France, Leila Shahid.
French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope confirmed France was "preparing all the measures necessary, in contact with the family and the Palestinian Authority."
Arafat controlled three top jobs — head of the PLO, of Fatah and president of the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said immediately after Arafat's burial the 18-member PLO Executive Committee would decide on a new PLO chief.
It is believed the PLO's No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas, would win the vote, giving him the legitimacy to take the reins of power. Abbas has been acting as caretaker leader, along with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
The decision by Palestinian leaders to bury Arafat in Ramallah defused a potential conflict with Israel, which had refused a demand for a Jerusalem burial.
Israel had pushed for a Gaza burial, but agreed Wednesday to allow Arafat to be buried at his Ramallah headquarters — the Palestinian leader's virtual prison for the last three years and seen as a symbol of his resistance.
Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told Army Radio the Palestinian Authority would be in charge of security and Israeli forces would remain on the sidelines unless there was unrest, such as an attempted march on Jerusalem.
Arafat's daughter, Zahwa, was not brought to the hospital to see her dying father, said Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France.
"His daughter is a 9-year-old girl who has to be spared the very difficult situation — first, in relation to his status and the crowd that surrounds him, and second, the medical situation," she said.
While Arafat's illness remains publicly undisclosed, his condition has steadily worsened during his 13 days at the Percy Military Training Hospital southwest of Paris.
French doctors seeking to explain Arafat's low count of platelets, blood cells that aid in clotting, sent samples of his blood to several countries for testing, PLO hard-liner Farouk Kaddoumi told The Associated Press in an interview in Tunisia, where he lives. Test results did not pinpoint a cause for Arafat's illness.