Suha Arafat Emerges as Key Player

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Yasser Arafat's wife Suha, long dismissed by Palestinians as a spoiled socialite, had not even seen her husband for years until he fell sick last month. But she has suddenly emerged as a major player in the succession struggle for Palestinian power.

In a one-minute telephone call to the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, she set off a political storm Monday, accusing her husband's top aides of conspiring to replace the 75-year-old leader in a behind-the-scenes power grab.

The 41-year-old Mrs. Arafat, who until now remained largely outside the political scene, said top officials aimed to "bury" her husband "alive." A Christian convert to Islam, she ended the phone call with "God is Great" — often used as a Muslim war cry.

The comments angered Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) and the PLO's number two, Mahmoud Abbas (search), who nearly postponed a trip to Paris to consult with Arafat's doctors. They later decided to go ahead with the visit and left the West Bank for France on Monday.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Arafat aide, called an urgent news conference early Monday to declare the Palestinian leadership's anger over Mrs. Arafat's remarks.

"What came from Mrs. Arafat doesn't represent our people," he said, accusing her of "wanting to destroy the Palestinian leadership's decision and to be the lone decision maker."

Mrs. Arafat has lived since 2000 in Paris — far from her husband, confined in his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank. But the health crisis has vaulted her to the center of events.

Since Arafat's hospitalization 10 days ago in a military hospital outside Paris, his wife has largely controlled access to the symbol of Palestinian national aspirations.

Palestinian officials, the Israeli media and analysts blamed her for the fog surrounding her husband's condition, saying her silence has created a vacuum that has been filled by a slew of rumors.

In recent days, she has aligned herself with Palestinian officials opposed to the current leadership, including Abbas, Palestinian officials said.

She's found herself in a common position with the PLO's hard-line foreign affairs chief, Farouk Kaddoumi, who opposed the 1993 interim peace accords that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (search).

The hard-line group appears to be jockeying for control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (search), the most powerful and influential Palestinian body.

Some analysts said Mrs. Arafat, who has received a generous monthly stipend from her husband and is under investigation by French authorities for alleged illegal transfers of $11.4 million into her accounts, is elbowing into the Palestinian political scene.

But it remained unclear why.

"It appears to be a kind of conflict over money and properties, because Suha has no political position in the Palestinian system," said Palestinian newspaper commentator Hani Masri. However, it is also possible she is planning a political overthrow, he said.

"This is an indication of the trouble that will emerge in the post-Arafat era. Even the Palestinian leadership appears to be failing in handling this issue," he said.

A Nablus-born Christian, Suha served as Arafat's secretary when he was in exile in Tunisia. In 1991, Mrs. Arafat converted to Islam and married the Palestinian leader.

He was 62. She was 28 — and unpopular from the start.

Conspiracy theories raced through Palestinian streets that her mother, Ramonda Tawil, a well-known Palestinian journalist, arranged the marriage as a way to control Arafat.

Suha Arafat generated more animosity when she arrived in the largely Muslim, conservative Gaza Strip (search) in 1994 and refused to cover her long blonde hair with the traditional Islamic head-covering.

Her expensive Parisian clothes and the luxury BMW she drove around Gaza's poverty-stricken streets enraged Palestinians.

She also frustrated the Palestinian leadership by making statements contrary to official policy. Once she expressed sympathy for militant groups when the Palestinian Authority was in a heated battle to put them down.

In 1999, she embarrassed then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton by accusing Israel in a speech of using poisonous gas on Palestinians and increasing cancer rates. In her book, Clinton referred to the hug and kiss from Mrs. Arafat at the speech as the "worst" mistake of her senatorial campaign.

In 2002, after Arafat condemned "all terrorist acts which target civilians," Suha told a London-based Arabic newspaper that if she had a son "there would be no greater honor than to sacrifice him for the Palestinian cause."

Yet in 2000, when violence erupted, she fled to Paris with her young daughter, Zahwa. She returned to the West Bank last month when Arafat fell ill, rushing to his Ramallah headquarters and then accompanying him to Paris.

"It's an absurd situation that Suha is sitting there and deciding when, how and who," Sufian Abu Zaida, a Palestinian Authority official, told Israel's Army Radio.