JERUSALEM – Imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti (search) has decided to run for president in upcoming Palestinian elections, a source close to the popular politician said Saturday.
Barghouti, widely seen as the strongest candidate to replace Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search), will only bow out of the race if his ruling Fatah movement selects a different candidate in internal voting, the source said on condition of anonymity. That is unlikely as Fatah is not expected to hold a primary.
Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, said she was unaware of her husband's plans.
Under Palestinian law, elections are to be held within two months to find a successor to Arafat, who died Thursday. Rauhi Fattouh, a virtual unknown, was sworn in as temporary president of the Palestinian Authority (search), the self-ruling power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He will serve as caretaker president until elections are held.
Barghouti is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison after being convicted of involvement in terrorism. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters this week that Barghouti "will remain in prison for the rest of his life because he's a murderer."
After Arafat was laid to rest in Ramallah on the West Bank on Friday, the Palestinian leadership ordered preparations for new presidential elections to start immediately and appealed to the United States to take an active role in securing a vote in 60 days.
Arafat was buried in the compound where he spent his last years as a virtual prisoner. He was seen off in a chaotic outpouring of grief honoring the man who embodied the Palestinian people's dream of statehood.
Hours after Arafat's body was placed in a stone and marble tomb, President Bush said he saw "a great chance" to create an independent Palestinian state. British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Bush in pledging to mobilize global support for Middle East peace efforts.
A senior Palestinian aide, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said Saturday that Palestinian leaders were committed to holding a vote within the required two months. Some officials had toyed with amending the law to allow parliament to choose a leader.
Bush said he hoped Arafat's successor would embrace the notion of a democratic state.
"I'd like to see it done in four years," Bush said, referring to the length of his second term. "I think it is possible."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath on Saturday welcomed Bush's "willingness to invest more time and more authority and more influence in getting this peace process back." He told reporters: "I don't think we need three or four years."
Shaath confirmed that Secretary of State Colin Powell visit the region to meet with Palestinian leaders. He did not say when. A senior State Department official said the meeting would take place "soon."
Palestinian leaders promised to honor the democratic process as they tried to fill the void left by the death of the man who directed the Palestinian cause for four decades.
"It's going to be very difficult to replace Yasser Arafat," Shaath told CNN on Friday. "Charismatic leaders like this ... are really difficult to come by."
Palestinian leaders signaled their determination to ensure a smooth transition by quickly electing Mahmoud Abbas, a former prime minister, to head the Palestine Liberation Organization, the most powerful of Arafat's three posts.
Fattouh ordered an immediate start to election preparations, the chairman of Palestinian election committee, Rami Al-Hamdalla, told the Palestinian news service on Friday.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat appealed to Bush to "make sure we have free and fair presidential elections in 60 days."
"If elections are obstructed by Israeli occupation, this will be the path of more chaos," he said. "This is your opportunity. This is a historic opportunity. We have a historic moment Mr. President. Seize it."
The frenzied burial took place at Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Israel had kept him under siege for nearly three years. Police firing guns in the air failed to restore order as the thousands of mourners rushed toward the coffin.
It contrasted sharply with the military funeral held earlier in Cairo, where the only outburst of emotion was the quiet weeping of Arafat's 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa, who stood beside her mother, Suha.
Where that service gave foreign dignitaries an opportunity to bid a formal farewell to the 75-year-old Palestinian leader, his burial in Ramallah allowed the Palestinian masses to pay their last respects.
"Everyone wanted to carry the coffin, to touch it, to say goodbye to the president," said Ahmed Tirawi, 22, a West Bank villager.
Arafat's death Thursday of an undisclosed ailment at a French military hospital shocked many Palestinians, who idolized the man who promised Palestinians a state of their own — even if he failed to deliver.
Israel accused Arafat of instigating terror attacks and cut off all contact with him.
Though many Palestinians accused Arafat of running a corrupt regime, his death transformed him into a transcendent symbol of Palestinian defiance.
Palestinians wanted to bury Arafat in Jerusalem at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site. Israel refused, fearing a strengthened Palestinian claim to the city.
Nearby Ramallah was the compromise site. Palestinian officials buried him in a concrete box in hopes they could one day move him to Jerusalem. Soil from Al Aqsa was sprinkled into the grave.
Ramallah is the hometown of Arafat's widow, Suha, but she and her daughter were not at the burial, Erekat said. Senior Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were still upset at her for publicly accusing them of seeking to usurp Arafat's role even as he lay dying.
Israel put its forces on high alert but kept them away from the funeral and tried to defuse tension by limiting travel through the West Bank by Palestinians heading to the burial. Only a small group of officials from the Gaza Strip were allowed to cross Israel and reach Ramallah.
By nightfall, the masses had dispersed, but a stream of mourners filed past the tomb piled high with flowers. At the head of the tomb, a black and white keffiyeh — Arafat's trademark headdress — was placed on an olive tree sapling near his photo.
"Today I feel like an orphan," said Khaled Jarrar, 29, a soldier who protected Arafat for eight years. "I feel empty."