Haj pilgrimage starts in Mecca
By Mahmoud Habboush
MECCA (Reuters) - Nearly 3 million Muslim pilgrims started the first phase of the annual haj on Wednesday, travelling through packed streets from Mecca's Grand Mosque to the enormous camp at Mina just outside the Saudi Arabian city.
In a dense sea of humanity, all clad in the same simple white robes, the pilgrims who were unable to get onto a new rail link were packed into 18,000 buses provided by the city or perched on the roofs of trucks. Others walked the 5 km to Mina in late afternoon temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius.
"I want to ask God for paradise... I don't want anything from the world. I want to win paradise and be among good men," said Abdul Raki al-Yamani, a Yemeni who lives in Mecca, waiting to mount a bus.
Islam's pilgrimage is one of the faith's so-called five pillars and is a duty for all Muslims once in their lives if they are capable of it.
The mayor of Mecca, Osama Fadl al-Bar, said he expected the number of pilgrims this year to be close to 3 million people, including those from inside Saudi Arabia. The Interior Ministry said 1.75 million had arrived from abroad.
This year haj comes against a backdrop of division in the Middle East, a historic centre of the Islamic world, as Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria's civil war.
Riyadh and Tehran have both played down the prospect of politically related trouble at the haj, but Saudi authorities have warned they will not allow disruptions.
In some previous years the haj has been marred by disasters, including stampedes and tent fires in which hundreds were killed. But the authorities have invested heavily in better infrastructure and there have been no such incidents since 2006. Continued...