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post #1 of 2 (permalink) Old 12-19-2007, 10:32 PM Thread Starter
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Muslim pilgrims begin Hajj


Muslim pilgrims begin Hajj

Ahmadinejad, second right, is the first Iranian president to perform Hajj [AFP]

Up to three million Muslim pilgrims have set off on a journey that is considered to follow the route taken by the Prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago.

Among the worshippers in Saudi Arabia for the beginning of the annual Hajj on Monday is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who was invited by King Abdullah.

"If I made a mistake or in one of my speeches or said something that was not in line with interest of the nation and has hurt the nation or I was not able to defend its rights, then I ask people to forgive me," Ahmadinejad said in a speech late on Sunday before he left Iran.

The Iranian leader's pilgrimmage has an added significance because of the sometimes fraught relations between the two Muslim countries.

An Iranian demonstration during the Hajj in July 1987 led to Tehran and Riyadh breaking off diplomatic relations the following year.

Security forces tried to break up the protest and 402 people, including 275 Iranians, were killed.

Iranian pilgrims then stayed away from the pilgrimage until 1991.

Political dimension

Al Jazeera's Sami Zeidan in Mina said there was an important political dimension to King Abdullah's invitation.

"Saudi Arabia is an important key player in the Sunni Muslim world, while Iran is a country that many Shia around the world look to for guidance," he said.

On Tuesday, the pilgrims will gather
at Mount Arafat [AFP]
"With the United States putting a lot of pressure on countries to isolate Iran over its nuclear file, the fact that Ahmadinejad is continuing to pick up invitations from countries in this region shows that Gulf countries are thinking twice about how close they want to walk with the United States."

On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad is expected to join the masses at Mount Arafat. The faithful will spend the day praying and asking for God's forgiveness at the summit, in a symbolic waiting for the last judgment.

Saudi authorities say they have made every possible preparation for the Hajj, which Abdullah protects and sponsors in his role as custodian of the two holy mosques.

Previous pilgrimages have seen periodic catastrophes created by the crush of people attempting to perform the religious rites. Last year, 364 people were killed in a stampede a the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, from which the stoning of the pillars takes place.

Flow of people

This year, a third level has been added to the bridge to ease the flow of people and Saudi officials say the crossing can now handle more than 200,000 people every hour.

The government has also it will crack down on pilgrim squatters who cause overcrowding and has taken precautions against bird flu, after recent cases where the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus killed birds in the Riyadh area.

The pilgrimage, which ends on Friday, is one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims at least once during their lives if they can afford it.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Ahmadinejad, second right, is the first Iranian president to perform Hajj [AFP]

On Tuesday, the pilgrims will gather
at Mount Arafat [AFP]
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 12-19-2007, 10:36 PM Thread Starter
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Saudis tighten security for Hajj

Saudi Arabia has mobilised thousands of security officers for protecting Hajj pilgrims [EPA]

Saudi Arabia has tightened security measures in the kingdom before the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which begins on Monday.

More than 1.6 million Muslim pilgrims have already arrived in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, and Saudi officials say they have installed more than 1,000 surveillance cameras around the city to monitor crowds.

Several helicopters fitted with cameras will also be deployed over the city, General Saleh Mohammed al-Shihri, commander of the Central Control of the Hajj Security, told AP news agency.

All Muslims must try to perform the Hajj to Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, during their lifetime.

Timeline of incidents in the Hajj

1979 About 250 Saudi militants take over Grand Mosque in Mecca. More than 100 of the fighters and 127 Saudi troops are killed in a two-week siege.

1987 Around 400 people, mainly Iranian Shia pilgrims, are killed in clashes with Saudi security forces during anti-Western protests in Mecca.

1989 One pilgrim is killed and 16 wounded after a bomb explodes near the grand mosque. Saudi Arabia beheads 16 foreigners found guilty of planting the bombs.

1990 A stampede in a tunnel at Mecca causes the deaths of 1426 pilgrims, mostly from Indonesia and Turkey.

1994 A stampede near Jamarat Bridge in Mena kills 270.

1997 A fire kills 343 pilgrims and injures 1500 at camp in Mena.

1998 A stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 119 when people fall of an underpass.

2001 A stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 35.

2003 A stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 14 people when pilgrims going in the opposite directions collide.

2004 A 27-minute stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills at least 251 during the stoning ritual.

2006 A stampede kills 345, the highest number in 16 years, 600 injured.

"Saudi Arabia has mobilised all the needed security and municipal forces for a smooth Hajj, so hopefully we will not see any problems," Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the interior minister, said on Saturday.

He was speaking after a parade of some of the 50,000 security forces involved in protecting the Hajj.

Nayef said there was no link between this year's Hajj and the arrest of 208 men last month in the latest of a series of sweeps against suspected fighters.

Ahmadinejad expected

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, is expected to perform the Hajj this year after a personal invitation from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

The invitation is notable as the Iranian leader is an adherent to the Shia sect of Islam, the main faith in Iran, whereas Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni.

Tensions between the two main sects of Islam have spilled over into violence in Iraq.

There are also ongoing concerns of repercussions after last week's deadly suicide bombing in Algeria and the ongoing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Medical precautions

Pilgrims will perform a series of sacred rituals, including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure in Mecca towards which Muslims pray.

Authorities are also hoping to avoid any repeat of the deadly incidents that have hit the Hajj in earlier years.

Last year's Hajj marked the first time the event was free from tragedy. But in 2006 more than 360 people were killed in a stampede at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge, where Muslims cast stones at a pillar representing Satan.

A further 70 at least died after a hostel in Mecca housing pilgrims collapsed.

Authorities have deployed 11,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics to provide medical care to pilgrims and 85 ambulances have also been mobilised.

Health alerts will be issued in case of any outbreak of disease, local media reported.

Palestinian pilgrims

In other news, Israel has agreed to let about 900 Gaza pilgrims travel through Israeli territory en route to Saudi Arabia, Palestinian and Israeli officials said on Sunday.

Israeli officials said the passage through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing was under way at midday, but couldn't specify how many Gazans had actually crossed.

The Israeli approval was given at the last minute.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies
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