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Middle East: Squabble Disrupts PLO Effort To Show United Front

Yasser Arafat, Palestinian leader for most of the last 40 years, is very ill. That much -- but not much more -- is known. Nearly everything else surrounding the 75-year-old Arafat's situation remains shrouded in uncertainty. That includes whether three Arafat aides would visit him in his hospital today near Paris, or whether they would be deterred by Arafat's wife's objections.

8 November 2004 -- Arafat never was predictable. And even now, in what could be his final days, mystery and controversy surround him.

Arafat fell ill in the middle of October with what at first was described as the flu. As the month ended, his condition worsened and he was transferred to a French military hospital near Paris. Most reports now describe him as critically ill and in a coma, but his wife, Suha Arafat, has placed strict limits on how much information can be divulged.

Questions about the Palestinian leader's health now have been eclipsed by a public squabble between the secondary leadership and Suha Arafat.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei, acting Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmud Abbas, and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath had announced that they would visit Arafat's bedside to, as they put it, "get direct information" about Arafat's condition.

But early today, Suha Arafat lashed out in an interview broadcast over Arab-language Al-Jazeera television. She spoke emotionally of a Palestinian conspiracy.

"I appeal to you [the Palestinian people] to be aware of the scope of the conspiracy," Suha Arafat said. "I say to you that they are trying to bury Abu Ammar [Arafat's nom de guerre] alive. Abu Ammar is well and will return to his homeland. And there will be a revolution until we triumph."

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the radical Islamist movement Hamas, seemed to take up the cry. He said Suha Arafat's accusations reflected deep divisions at the heart of the Palestinian Authority leadership. He called for a collective leadership to block attempts to seize power within the authority.

The delegation briefly called off the trip after Suha's appeal. They then decided to go anyway.

The cancellation was accompanied by angry blasts from the Palestinian leadership at Arafat's wife. Palestinian cabinet member Salah al-Pamari spoke out in Ramallah. "[Arafat's wife] has no right to accuse Arafat's colleagues and comrades [of] 40 years of conspiring against him," al-Pamari said. "It's our right as a people to know the real situation regarding Arafat's health. So far, we heard several stories, contradictory stories."

News agencies were reporting after midday today that Qorei, former prime minister Abbas, Foreign Minister Shaath, and parliament speaker Rauhi Fattouh had left Ramallah for Jordan to board a private jet to Paris.

The flight to Paris was expected to leave in early evening, and the group reportedly expects to visit the hospital tomorrow.

(international wire reports)