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Mourners Say Goodbye to Syria's 'Lion'

June 14, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER and JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DAMASCUS, Syria — Marking the end of an era in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of Syrians on Tuesday bid a somber farewell to President Hafez Assad, the man they called the "Lion of Damascus" and the only leader many here had ever known.

International friends and onetime foes paid their last respects to Syria's ironfisted ruler of 30 years, who died Saturday. They prayed over his flag-draped coffin as it lay in state at the white marble People's Palace and offered condolences to his son and anointed successor, Bashar.

From the streets of Damascus to Assad's native mountain village, Qardaha, ordinary Syrians honored their champion of Arab nationalism and said his 34-year-old son represents Syria's best chance for stability and continuity.

"A cub is the son of the Lion," said Faisal Mohammed, 36, a mourner in the capital's Omayyed Square. "He will continue what President Assad already started."

Assad, whose family name means "lion" in Arabic, died of a heart attack at the age of 69. Although he had suffered from several chronic illnesses, his death came as a shock to the nation he held together through fear, patronage and hard work.

Bashar Assad, an eye doctor by training and a political novice, stepped into his new role as head of family and country during his father's five-hour state funeral, receiving an unbroken succession of dignitaries from nearly 100 countries.

French President Jacques Chirac was the only Western leader to pay personal tribute to Assad. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, were among the 13 heads of state in attendance.

Neighboring Jordan's King Abdullah II represented the new generation of Arab leaders. The 38-year-old king was thrust into power last year when his father, King Hussein, died of cancer.

The delegations attending the funeral included representatives of countries that have had tense relations with Assad, such as Turkey and Iraq. A tearful Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Assad had reviled for forging a separate peace with their common enemy, Israel, also attended.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who led the U.S. delegation to the funeral, met briefly with Bashar Assad in private and seemed impressed with the heir apparent, who she said promised to pursue his father's goal of peace with Israel.

"It seems to me he is poised and someone who is ready to assume his duties," Albright said. "I was very encouraged by his desire to follow in his father's footsteps."

U.S. officials, who are eager for a smooth transition to the young Assad, give short shrift to the claims of his exiled uncle, Rifaat, to be the rightful heir to power and promoter of democracy in Syria.

They say the late president's exiled brother--reported by Associated Press to be in southern Spain on Tuesday--does not appear to have a significant following in a country lining up behind the young man widely called Dr. Bashar.

"According to every indication I can see, the people of Syria and institutions of government are right with him. I don't feel any crosscurrents out there," said a senior U.S. official.

Since his father's death Saturday, Bashar Assad has been promoted from colonel to lieutenant general, named commander in chief of the armed forces and declared the ruling Baath Party's presidential candidate. His nomination is to be confirmed at the party's first conference in 15 years, which begins Saturday, and his election by the country's rubber-stamp parliament is expected June 25. A national referendum is to be held shortly afterward to complete the hand-over of power.

Supporters insist that the eye doctor's inexperience in the complex and cutthroat politics of the Middle East is not a worry. They note that his father was in his 30s when he led a bloodless coup in 1970 and that there is a tradition in the Arab world of grooming young successors who grow into their role.

"In this country, a child is born a man, especially if he is born in the House of Assad," said Sonya Zoghbi, a 30-year-old army corporal among the throngs in Omayyed Square.

But the elder Assad relied on ruthlessness and a keen political acumen to maintain his grip on power in a country with a history of coups. It is unclear whether the gangly, blue-eyed doctor has inherited either trait, or if he has other skills to help him stay on top.

Meanwhile, Tuesday was the younger Assad's last day at his father's side.

Early in the morning, senior officers of the armed forces carried the late president's casket through the vast crowd that filled Damascus' central plaza. Bashar Assad followed close behind to the sound of a drum throbbing like the nation's collective heartbeat.

Men and women wailed tearfully and surged around the coffin until it was loaded onto a gun carriage and driven to the palace among a fleet of limousines.

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