SAUDI ARABIA: Security forces issue stern warnings ahead of hajj pilgrimage
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Handling an influx of 2.5 million pilgrims is a challenge during a good year, but at a time of increased tensions with Iran and rampant fears of swine flu, Saudi authorities are on high alert for any threat that could disrupt hajj, the annual holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
On Sunday, security forces sent a clear message to would-be saboteurs by staging a huge military demonstration involving thousands of troops, armored vehicles, helicopters, and first response teams. The Saudi government has announced it will deploy more than 100,000 security and emergency personnel for hajj, which will last from Wednesday to Sunday.
Sunday’s show of force comes after months of deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen, with both sides accusing the other of military intervention. Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad warned against Saudi restrictions on Iranian pilgrims, eliciting a sharp rebuke from Riyadh with the top Saudi cleric warning against the politicizing of hajj.
‘We hope we will not be obliged to resort to force,’ Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz told reporters after the demonstration Sunday, referring to calls by some Iranian figures for their pilgrims to use hajj as an opportunity to protest against the United States and Israel, Agence France Press reported.
Such protests, if they take place, would be a slap in the face to Saudi Arabia, which is often criticized for claiming to support Palestine while maintaining a strong alliance with the U.S., Israel’s staunchest ally.
‘It is not permitted to undertake any actions which are not part of the ritual ... and we will not permit anyone to damage the hajj or the pilgrims,’ the prince said.
He went on to say, however, that Saudi authorities have received assurances from Iranian officials that no such protests would take place.
But tensions between the Iranians and the Saudis surrounding hajj predate the recent Houthi rebel crisis by many years.
Shiite Iranians have long claimed abuse and discrimination at the hands of the Sunni Saudi authorities, and in 1987 things came to a head when Saudi police clashed with Iranian protesters, sparking a riot that left more than 400 people dead.
For more pictures of the Saudi military parade, check out Al Jazeera’s flickr slideshow.
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut