Western, Mideast Leaders Gather for Hassan's Funeral

July 7, 2008 - 8:07 PM

Jerusalem (CNS) - For the second time in five months, world leaders gathered on short notice Sunday to mourn the death of a Mideast monarch - and to hold unscheduled but significant meetings on the sidelines of the funeral.

Morocco's King Hassan, 70, died suddenly Friday, and was buried with little delay, according to Muslim tradition, on Sunday. His son, Mohammed, was quickly sworn in as King Mohammed VI.

President Clinton took the opportunity while attending the funeral of a leader he praised as a "peacemaker" to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat together.

Barak and Arafat were to have held talks near Gaza Saturday, but their meeting was postponed until Tuesday because of Hassan's death. When the two do meet, they will discuss Barak's ideas for moving forward the diplomatic process, ideas he ran past Clinton in Washington a week ago.

Clinton expressed disappointment that Syria's President Hafez el-Assad had not attended the funeral. He had been hoping to engineer a meeting between Assad and Barak, to smooth the road for a resumption in Syria-Israel negotiations.

"I'm slightly concerned and don't quite understand why he didn't come," Clinton told Israeli journalists. "Perhaps he wasn't feeling well. I have been in ongoing contact with him, and was hoping to see him here and perhaps have him and Barak meet each other."

Among the many regional heads of state he met for the first time, Barak also became the first Israeli prime minister ever to encounter an Algerian head of state. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose country remains technically at war with Israel, told Barak he was available to help in peace efforts whenever asked.

Bouteflika also took the opportunity to meet Clinton for the first time, and to end longstanding antagonism with Morocco, Algeria's North African neighbor.

Barak met the new king, Mohammed, and thanked him for his father's efforts to promote regional peace.

In February, world leaders gathered in Amman to mourn Jordan's King Hussein, who died after a long battle with cancer.

The deaths of Hassan, Hussein, and Sheikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa of Bahrain in March, have drawn attention to a period of transition underway, as the region's aging leaders are replaced after lengthy incumbencies by young, untested heirs.

Other elderly or unwell Arab leaders include Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Assad, Arafat, and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.