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Press Release
By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer


30,000 Iraqi Pilgrims Undertake First Open Hajj in Three Decades
(Previous pilgrimages marred by Baathist intervention)

Thirty thousand Iraqi pilgrims have set out on the first Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last year. This is the first time in three decades that Iraqi Muslims have been free to undertake this religious duty without the intervention of the Baathist regime.

In previous years, the Hajj was subject to the manipulation of the Baath Party. Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid Al Kifaei explained, "Baathist officials interfered with the Hajj and the rights of the pilgrims. People were not allowed to travel freely. Visas were allotted based on nepotism and half of the quota was reserved for members of the intelligence services."

In contrast, visas for this year's Hajj were assigned on the basis of an open, nationally televised lottery system.

One third of the 30,000 visas were allocated to elderly Iraqis. As the pilgrimage is a religious duty for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to perform it, preference is given to those for whom this may be the last opportunity.

Iraq's High Commission for the Hajj also set aside a special allotment for the victims of Saddam Hussein's regime. Many of these were assigned to widows whose husbands were killed by Saddam Hussein's security forces and mothers who lost their sons to the brutalities of the former dictator.

In addition, the commission is providing financial assistance, where necessary, to help these victims of the former regime meet the travel expenses.

The cost of the Hajj for Iraqi pilgrims is $700. According to Al Kifaei, this represents about three months' salary for working class Iraqis and about one month's salary for middle class Iraqis.

Iraqis who wished to participate in this year's Hajj were invited to apply to the High Commission for the Hajj in order to receive one of the 30,000 visas allotted to Iraqis by the Saudi Hajj officials. Saudi officials raised Iraq's allocation from 25,000 to 30,000 this year in recognition of the changed circumstances.

Visas were assigned on the basis of a random lottery held at the Baghdad Convention Center. One lottery was held for the 10,000 visas allotted to elderly citizens and another for the remainder.

By special arrangement with Kuwaiti officials, 3,000 Iraqis are crossing the border each day to board airplanes in Kuwait City and fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrims will all arrive in Mecca and the area around Mount Arafat to observe the traditional rituals of the Hajj which occur between 8 and 13 Dhul Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. For 2004, those dates roughly correspond to January 30 -- February 4, according to the western calendar.

Muslims believe that the Hajj is a recognition of the oneness of God and the witness of the prophet Abraham. According to Islamic tradition, the Ka'aba at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca is the site of the first house of worship raised by Abraham and his son Ismael to the one and only God.

The rituals of the Hajj recall the tribulations of Abraham and his family.

At the same time, starting on 10 Dhul Hijjah, Muslims around the world will be observing Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which is one of the two most important holidays on the Muslim calendar.

At this time, Muslims commemorate God's call to Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismael. Being satisfied with Abraham's faithfulness, God spared Ismael at the last moment and Abraham slaughtered a sheep in his son's place.

In recognition of this, Muslims who are able to do so traditionally slaughter a sheep during this celebration and share the meat with the poor.

The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. The first four are the declaration of faith, the performance of daily prayers, the offering of charity and fasting during the month of Ramadan.


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