MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Huge crowds of Muslims hurled pebbles at stone walls representing the devil in a purging ritual of the hajj pilgrimage Saturday, with many expressing joy at the news of Saddam Hussein’s execution in Iraq.
The stone-throwing ritual has been one of the most dangerous of the hajj, the cause of frequent stampedes as the massive crowds of pilgrims file past the walls along a gigantic platform, hitting each with seven stones. Last year, more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede, while 244 pilgrims died in a similar crush in 2004.
Only days after last year’s hajj ended, Saudi authorities tore down the platform and built a new, larger one with more entrances and exits. Thousands of police enforced strict traffic rules for the pilgrims this year, keeping them moving in one direction.
Cranes still surrounded the nearly mile-long platform, which over the next years will be expanded to five levels, allowing pilgrims to perform the stoning on each one.
Giant signs with safety warnings — “Don’t block the paths” or “Avoid crowding and pushing” — far outnumbered the ones advising pilgrims to avoid sin and corruption.
“It’s much better this year. This is so much smoother, the crowds don’t feel as dangerous,” said Sayed Hassan Moussawi, an Iraqi cleric who has performed the hajj every year since 2003.
However, Saudi Arabia expressed irritation that Saddam was executed during the hajj — particularly on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the biggest Islamic holiday. Saudi authorities always worry that the annual hajj — attended this year by nearly 3 million pilgrims from around the world — could see an eruption of political protests.
“It is a cause of surprise and disappointment that the death sentence was implemented on the first day of Eid, which is supposed to embody unity for Muslims,” the state news agency SUNA said in an editorial.
News of Saddam’s hanging before dawn quickly reached pilgrims, many of them notified by relatives at home by phone calls or text messages.
A group of Iraqi Shiites passed around the news with joy as they walked to the stone walls.
“Today we were stoning the devil, but we were also stoning Saddam,” said Sayed Hassan Moussawi, an Iraqi Shiite cleric. “Everyone here is so happy. He killed so many men, women and children and he tormented Iraq’s Shiites.”
An Iranian Shiite cleric announced Saddam’s death to a group of veterans of Iran’s long war with Iraq, traveling together to perform the hajj.
“The criminal Saddam has been executed,” he proclaimed during noon prayers. His congregation, many of whom were missing arms or legs from the war or were still suffering the effects of chemical weapons used by Saddam’s army, broke into joyous cheers of “God is great!”
The mood was more reserved among Iraqi Sunni pilgrims, many of whom refused to talk about Saddam’s execution.
“We’re not here for politics, we’re here to get closer to God,” said Sheik Khatab Mustafa, from the Baghdad Sunni district of Azamiyah. “Saddam can come and go, but God remains eternal.”
Most pilgrims remained focused on the religious aspect of the holiday, which includes cutting one’s hair to reflect being in a purified state.
At the foot of the platform, Yasser Abu Sharaa bent his head to let a friend shave his shoulder-length hair with a razor. The young Syrian had been proud of his long hair, but said he would not miss it after the hajj.
“It’s like a burden of sin is lifted,” Abu Sharaa said, his newly bald scalp nicked with spots of blood. All around him, the pavement was littered with hair.