Muslims from around the world pray outside Mecca as annual pilgrimage gathers momentum

Friday, January 30th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ The hajj pilgrimage began in earnest Friday as Muslims from around the world arrived in the tent city of Mina, where many prayed before dawn in cloud-covered valleys outside the holy city of Mecca.

It was their last stop before heading to Mount Arafat for a day of prayers and soul searching that is the main ritual of the annual gathering.

Police forces were on alert following the death Thursday of five Saudi security agents in a shootout with terror suspects in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The militants exchanged fire with Saudi security forces raiding a house, and five Saudi agents and the father of a suspect were killed, according to the Interior Ministry. Several others were detained.

But 500 miles to the west, pilgrims said they were too overwhelmed by the spiritual experience to be worried about terrorism.

Egyptian computer science professor Do'oa Labib, one of nearly 2 million Muslims in this Arab nation for the hajj, said he felt close to God.

``These holy lands fill your heart with such genuine emotions,'' he said. ``I feel that with every step I take my heart is gradually purified from any blemishes and becomes totally dedicated to God.''

Friday marked the eighth day of the Islamic calendar month of Dhul Hijjah, commonly known as Yawm Tarwiyah, or the day of watering.

On Saturday, the pilgrims will move farther south from Mecca toward Mount Arafat, where Islam's 7th century prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon in A.D. 632, three months before his death.

Another pilgrim, Algerian economist Seed Jareeri, said ``it is thrilling to be here and uphold the tradition of the prophet Muhammad.''

The ritual at Arafat signals the climax of the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Stopping on their exhausting journey, some slept on the open road, while others rested in tents or climbed nearby hilltops to pray.

Thousands of troops stood watch as the pilgrims _ men dressed in identical white garb and women covered except for their hands and faces _ circled the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, in the first ritual of the pilgrimage.

Authorities also braced for heavy showers expected over the next few days that could turn Mina into a muddy mess and cause rock slides from surrounding mountains.

Saudi authorities said they were fully prepared, with more than 2,000 rescue vehicles and 118 boats at their disposal, according to Lt. Gen. Saad al-Tuweijry, head of the Civil Defense.