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Jordan stands vigil for Hussein; Cancer-stricken king placed on life support


AMMAN, Jordan -- Monther Abed Al-Saida stood for hours last night outside the King Hussein Medical Center. A steady, cold rain fell, but his king was dying.

"The death of the king is the death of all the people here," said a sleepless Al-Saida, who joined 200 people in a nightlong vigil as their 63-year-old monarch's seven-month battle with cancer was nearing an end.

The critically ill king arrived in Jordan early yesterday from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he had been treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital that bears his name, where the unconscious king was placed on life support.

Late yesterday, the king's family apparently decided against removing him from the life-support systems.

The gravity of Hussein's condition was shockingly different from his return to Jordan less than three weeks ago. He proclaimed himself cured, ousted his brother Prince Hassan as his heir, and named his eldest son, Abdullah, to succeed him.

Within a week, he was back on a plane to the Mayo Clinic to undergo a second bone marrow transplant that ultimately failed. His wish was to return home to Jordan to die. The king and his entourage left the United States Thursday evening.

Throughout the capital yesterday, Jordanians stopped to recall the man they call "father."

They spoke glowingly of his leadership in an era of dictators and despots. They remembered him as a peacemaker in a region marked by violence and war. But more often than not, it was the king's humanity, his personal touch, that moved them.

At the Abu Issa Cafeteria, proprietor Samir Mohammed remembered the day he shook the king's hand.

He was serving coffee at the funeral of a Jordanian lawmaker's son. The king arrived at the mourning house in a turtleneck and leather jacket, he said.

Hussein greeted the grieving father with tears in his eyes, Mohammed said, and then consoled him with the words, "We are all your sons. Don't be sad."

"He sympathizes with us. His tears are real," said Amar Abu Rassa, a businessman who stopped at the Abu Issa for a cup of sweet Arabic coffee. "He cries, but he solves the problems."

Parked outside Ali Al-Saide's home in the Palestinian refugee camp named for Hussein is a white Nissan. Stenciled on the side of the car are the words "A Gift From King Hussein." Al-Saide was one of 10 disabled Jordanians who received cars in 1987 on the king's birthday.

A government worker, Al-Saide lost the lower half of his right leg in 1978 when he stepped on a land mine while patrolling the border with Syria. Nine years later, his colleagues at the Ministry of Social Welfare petitioned the king to give him a car.

"I hope God gives King Hussein more years of life because he helped us," said Al-Saide.

Munir Amaira recalled a snowy day three years ago when he saw the king's Mercedes driving through the streets of Amman. "He stopped in the middle of the street to let an old woman cross," said the 23-year-old baker.

"We can't describe our feelings," Amaira said, standing before an oven filled with baking pita bread. "It's very difficult for anyone to replace him. We are citizens of Jordan. We have a lot of things that the other Arab countries don't have. We are free to say anything we want."

When Monther Al-Saida learned the king's jumbo jet had landed in Amman, he and his brothers drove five hours from their home in southern Jordan to be near him. Hussein was not only their king; he was the man who saved their family's home from foreclosure.

In 1992, Al-Saida was among thousands of Jordanians who lined a parade route to welcome Hussein home after his first bout with cancer.

As the motorcade approached, Al-Saida said, he threw himself in front of the king's car. The king's guards grabbed him. "No, let him come," Al-Saida recalled the king saying.

Al-Saida said he told the king that his family needed about $15,000 to keep the bank from foreclosing on his family's home. The king took his phone number, Al-Saida said. The money arrived at the bank shortly after.

"I will give my king my soul," Al-Saida said as he stood outside the hospital, "not because he saved my house but because I love him. We are here from noon because we are worried about his health. And we want to hear some news to relieve us."

The news never came. Throughout the night, Jordanian television reported only that the king had returned and was under the care of physicians at the hospital.

During the 10 p.m. news, Nasser Judeh, the minister of information, told Jordanians to ignore foreign media reports that said the king was comatose, kept alive by life-support systems.

"We have seen a lot of speculation," Judeh said on the English-language news. "Let's wait for the official statements."

At the same time, Jordanian television was broadcasting retrospectives on the king's life and his accomplishments during his 46-year reign.

Earlier in the evening, Jordanian lawmakers met to discuss preparations for the king's funeral and the succession ceremony that will immediately follow his death, said Sultan Hattab, a columnist for the daily Jordanian newspaper Al Ra'i.

"The machines are keeping him alive," said Hattab, who was at the hospital earlier in the evening. "Now what controls us is the political situation, not his health. They are preparing to announce [the king's condition] in a good time that is suitable for them."

Hattab referred to the arrangements that had to be in place before the king's death was announced.

While at the hospital, Hattab said, he spoke with his friend and former prime minister, Dr. Abdul Salam Majali, who had visited Hussein's room.

Muslim tradition requires that Hussein be buried within 24 hours of his death. About 40 heads of state have expressed interest in attending the funeral, Hattab said, but they will need time to get to Jordan.

The decision to disconnect Hussein from life support will be left to Queen Noor, the king's American-born fourth wife, and Hussein's heir, Crown Prince Abdullah, Hattab said. Both were at the hospital last night, he said.

"She was very strong today," Hattab said of the queen.

Also at the king's bedside was his brother, Prince Hassan, and his sister, Princess Basma, said the journalist.

"King Hussein understands the people of Jordan; he talks the same language. He's humble and he makes you feel that he's not a king," said Hattab, who telephoned the king regularly as part of his job. "I have his telephone number, and I can call him. I have difficulty speaking with the information minister or the prime minister. But the king. "

A well-known journalist in Jordan and the author of a book on the king, Hattab also has a personal story to tell.

Hattab said he was the first Jordanian journalist to appear on Israeli television supporting the Madrid peace plan in 1991 -- a stand that angered many of his countrymen. When he returned to Jordan, he sequestered himself in his house. He emerged after a month and the king called him. Hussein praised him for his stand and awarded him a medal in a television appearance.

"You have courage," Hattab said the king told him.

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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