DAMASCUS, Syria -- Tens of thousands of mourners, waving black banners and wailing with grief, took to the streets on the eve of President Hafez Assad's state funeral, while Syria's powerful military closed ranks behind the late leader's son and heir apparent, Bashar Assad.
Photos of Bashar Assad in military fatigues were plastered on walls all over Damascus -- underscoring vital support of the armed forces for the computer-savvy, Western-educated son Assad had groomed for the past six years as his successor.
But despite speedy moves by the Syrian hierarchy to ensure his ascent to power, it remained to be seen whether Bashar Assad, an eye doctor who has never held a major political post, would be tough and canny enough to survive as leader. During three decades of autocratic rule, his father often employed ruthless measures to quell any challenge.
The long-term impact on any comprehensive Middle East peace accord was also uncertain. Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, briefly revived late last year after a four-year hiatus, are now likely to remain stalled during the transition period.
Syria and Israel remain technically at war, but their frontier has been quiet for years, and has remained so since Assad's death Saturday at the age of 69.
Throughout the Syrian capital today, shops were shuttered, with almost the only business being done by vendors selling black mourning cloth by the yard for banners and flags. Mourners flooded in from the countryside, some on horseback and clad in traditional dress.
Crowds walked in rows through the street, with women weeping and people waving portraits of Hafez Assad. Others carried black banners emblazoned, ''Bashar, the hope of millions.'' Black flags hung from balconies and drivers tied black strips of cloth to car antennas.
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