- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia This desert kingdom is praying for a peaceful pilgrimage next week, but preparing for trouble, warning of zero tolerance at the first mass gathering of Muslims since the September 11 terror attacks.

The suicide hijackings in the United States for which Islamists and particularly Saudis have been blamed have raised tensions for the annual hajj at Mecca, which is expected to witness a record turnout.

Saudi rulers are painfully aware of the dangers of having an estimated 2.5 million believers in the cradle of Islam, and they fear certain elements may seek to stage demonstrations or raise slogans.

King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz was the latest to sound the alarm.

In a statement Monday night after a Cabinet meeting, the king warned "hajjis" (pilgrims) to keep away from any disturbance or activity in violation of the sanctity of the event, one of the five pillars of Islam.

At the same time as he welcomed the 900,000 devout who already have arrived by sea, land and air, the king said: "Pilgrims should cooperate with one another, as well as with Saudi officials."

The man in charge of internal security, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, had issued a stern warning earlier in the day.

"If anyone, God forbid, tries to harm security during the pilgrimage, we will not hesitate to confront him with all our might," Prince Nayef, the interior minister, said.

The authorities are "totally opposed to any gathering or slogan or movement" that is not part of the traditional rites of the pilgrimage, the minister said, when asked about potential anti-American protests or support for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, scion of one of the kingdom's wealthiest families.

"Everyone must know that we will not compromise with anyone on the security of the pilgrimage and that no slogans will be allowed even those in support of the kingdom," he added.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and threats from the Bush administration to spread the campaign to other Muslim countries specifically, Iraq and Iran have aroused concern in the Muslim and Arab world that Islam is a target. Officials worry the hajj could be exploited to confront the United States, and even its allies, including Saudi Arabia.

Tragedy has struck in past years, adding urgency to the preparations of Saudi authorities who have mobilized 60,000 employees and volunteers, including more than 9,000 medical staff, who will be deployed in Mecca for the hajj, which is due to reach its climax Feb. 21.

In July 1987, Saudi security forces clashed with Iranian pilgrims holding a protest against Israel and the United States.

Official Saudi figures put the death toll at 402, including 275 Iranians.

More than 60,000 Iranians are to attend this year's pilgrimage, although relations between Riyadh and Tehran, which were cut off after the carnage, are today quite good.

Such is the crush of numbers crowding the holy sites at Mecca that the slightest problem can result in disaster.

Last year, 35 died in a stampede during the "stoning of Satan" ritual, the last event of the hajj.

In 1998, 118 died when a bridge collapsed.

The previous year, 343 pilgrims burned to death in a fire that began at a tent camp. Gas cookers have since been banned and 44,000 fireproof tents erected.

Each year, Saudi Arabia upgrades the facilities and security for the pilgrimage.

According to the hajj security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali Bar, 20,000 soldiers will be deployed.

Some 1,755 security cameras have been installed throughout the Grand Mosque and surrounding areas for this year 1422 by the lunar calendar that starts with the Hijira, the Prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina Gen. Bar told yesterday's edition of Al-Watan newspaper.

Helicopters also will keep the huge crowds under surveillance, he added.

All Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, provided they have the means to do so.

About 5,000 Palestinians left the West Bank on Sunday and crossed the Allenby bridge into Jordan on their way to Mecca, said a statement from the Israeli civil administration in Jerusalem.

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