Arab leaders pay last respects to King Fahd

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The Independent Online

The Saudi princes and Muslim heads of state watched as the the body of the 84-year-old ruler, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, wrapped in his simple brown robe, was lowered into an unmarked plot in the barren al-Oud cemetery.

Among those paying tribute to the king, who had ruled since 1982, were the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah.

In Riyadh's packed Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque, ordinary Saudis mixed with leaders from across the Islamic world, including Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan-istan's Hamid Karzai. As a sign of the changing times in the region, an Iraqi delegation led by the Kurdish President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari was among the first to pay its respects.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait under the leadership of Saddam Hussein had prompted King Fahd into one of the most difficult decisions of his reign: to allow US troops into the kingdom, seen as the cradle of Islam.

Non-Muslims were barred from the funeral ceremonies. Western heads of state and dignitaries, including Prince Charles and France's President Jacques Chirac, were expected to fly in for today's events. A US delegation, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, will offer Washington's respects.

The brief afternoon ceremony was devoid of the pomp that would normally accompany a state funeral. The late king's body was brought into the mosque on a wooden plank carried by his sons, and placed in the middle of the mosque amid the crowd.

After the ceremony, the body was carried out and driven to its final resting place in an ambulance. In accordance with the kingdom's austere Wahhabist version of Islam, King Fahd was buried beside both his predecessors and commoners on a plain of shrubland with unmarked stones.

Unlike many Muslim states, Saudi Arabia has set no mourning period, in keeping with Wahhabi acceptance of God's will without question.

Saudi flags, emblazoned with the proclamation of faith, "There is no God but Allah", flew at full mast. Shops and businesses opened as usual in the capital, though the mood among ordinary Saudis was subdued.

Despite the pared-down ceremony, tight security was in evidence in a city still in a state of emergency in response to terror attacks. Roads leading to the mosque were closed. Inside, hundreds of security forces mixed with mourners, many drawn from the 10,000 Saudi princes, and snipers were posted around the cemetery in a sharp reminder that attacks by supporters of the al-Qa'ida leader and fellow-Saudi Osama bin Laden had clouded the king's final years.

King Fahd is succeeded by his half-brother Abdullah, who has been in de facto charge of the country since a series of debilitating strokes suffered by King Fahd in the mid-1990s.

Analysts expect the new king to maintain Saudi Arabia's commitment to stable oil markets and its close alliance with the West.