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Saudi crown prince dies, leaving succession uncertain

The younger brother of King Abdullah was in his 80s, and there is no formal method to name a replacement from the sprawling royal family.

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Anyone who rises to the throne is likely to maintain the kingdom's close alliance with the United States.

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But it would have an internal impact. Abdullah has been a reformer, making cautious changes to improve the position of women — such as granting them to right to vote in elections scheduled for 2015 — and seeking modernize the kingdom. That has brought some backlash from the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who give the royal family the religious legitimacy needed to rule.

Nayef, in contrast, has a reputation for closer ties to the clerics.

If Nayef is named crown prince, it could stoke tensions between those backing Abdullah's changes and those opposing any deviation from the kingdom's strict interpretations of Islam.

Nayef led an aggressive crackdown on Islamic militants who opened a campaign of bombings in the kingdoms following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

He also maintains a hard line against regional rival, the Shiite power Iran, claiming earlier this year that Tehran was encouraging protests among Saudi Arabia's minority Shiites. Nayef was deeply involved in the kingdom's decision in March to send military forces into neighboring Bahrain to help crush pro-reform demonstrations led by tiny island nation's majority Shiites against its Sunni rulers — which Gulf Arab leaders accuse of having ties to Iran.

In August, Nayef accepted undisclosed libel damages from Britain's newspaper The Independent over an article which accused him of ordering police chiefs to shoot and kill unarmed demonstrators in Saudi Arabia.

Sultan was long seen as a powerful aspirant for the throne. When Fahd became king in 1982, Sultan had hoped to be named crown prince. But instead Fahd appointed their half-brother, Abdullah.

Sultan challenged that decision, but in the end the sons of Abdul-Aziz closed ranks, aware that a direct confrontation with Abdullah could tear the family apart.

When Fahd died and Abdullah ascended to the throne, Sultan was named crown prince and heir.

Sultan was the kingdom's defense minister in 1990 when U.S. forces deployed in Saudi Arabia to defend it against Iraqi forces that had overrun Kuwait. His son, Prince Khaled, served as the top Arab commander in operation Desert Storm, in which U.S., Saudi and other Arab forces drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

In May 2004, the royal court announced that Sultan was discharged from a Jiddah hospital after an operation to remove a cyst from his intestines. In a rare move, Saudi television showed footage of the prince, dressed in a traditional white robe and sitting in an armchair, receiving greetings from a number of Saudi dignitaries. A few days before that, state-guided media showed photos of the prince in his hospital bed, apparently to counter rumors about his health.

Sultan was born in Riyadh in 1928, according to the defense ministry's website. But official reports vary, some say he was born in 1931, others have him as being 85 years old.

As defense minister, Sultan closed multibillion deals to establish the modern Saudi armed forces, including land, air, naval and air defense forces.

On more than one occasion, the deals implicated several of his sons in corruption scandals — charges they have denied.

Sultan is survived by 32 children from multiple wives. They include Bandar, the former ambassador to the United States who now heads the National Security Council, and Khaled, Sultan's assistant in the Defense Ministry.

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Associated Press Writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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