Many pilgrims stone 'devil' Bush in Haj ritual
Haj pilgrims pelted stones at symbols of the devil on Friday, and many said they were targeting US President Bush and other world leaders seen as oppressing Muslims.
Last year, 250 people were crushed to death in a stampede at Mena's Jamarat Bridge, but so far new measures by the Saudi authorities have averted any repeat. This year, more than 2.5 million Muslims streamed into the area for the stoning, meant as an act of purification and rejection of temptation.
Many pilgrims said they were thinking of Bush and his allies while they were hurling pebbles at the site where the devil is said to have appeared to the biblical patriarch Abraham.
"Yes, the devil is Bush and that other one from Israel -- (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon. And there's (British Prime Minister) Blair too," said Egyptian Tia'amah Mohammed.
"We throw the stones so we can vent our anger at them."
IRAQ TRIGGERS ANGER
Many Muslims revile Bush for his perceived bias toward Israel and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Anger at Sharon runs deep over Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and Jerusalem, the site of one of Islam's holiest shrines.
Other pilgrims said politics did not cross their minds. "This is all about God, and that's all I was thinking about when I threw the stones," Yemeni Ali al-Suweiny said.
In Washington, Bush issued a statement sending his greetings to Muslims round the world marking the Eid al-Adha feast.
"The kindness and charity practiced by Muslims during this holiday strengthen friendships, help those in need, and exemplify the compassionate spirit that makes America and the world a better place," said Bush.
Saudi Arabia has revamped the Jamarat area, expanding the stoning targets and deploying thousands of security forces to control the crowd.
They also replaced the three pillars the pilgrims stone with thick walls providing a larger target to prevent the crush that normally occurs at the site.
Pilgrims, in white robes meant to eradicate differences in race and class between Muslims, have poured into the Jamarat area since Thursday, the first day of the stoning ritual and the start of Eid al-Adha.
Most pilgrims will finish by Friday -- the penultimate day of the haj -- and then go to Mecca to circle the Kaaba, which symbolizes the house of God, for the final time.
"Thank God, we have not witnessed anything unusual or any accidents or deaths so far during the stoning," Brigadier Mansour al-Turki told reporters.
This year's pilgrimage, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim, has been overshadowed by the Asian tsunami disaster and the threat of al Qaeda-linked violence in the kingdom, which has been battling the group for nearly two years.
"Terrorism is a result of a sick mentality and of a deviant methodology," King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah said in the statement carried on the state news agency SPA.
"Terrorism is corruption on earth and aims toward destruction and fighting God, his Prophet and Muslims ... and God promised the harshest punishment for corrupters," they said.
The haj was first performed by Islam's Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago.