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For Iraqis, End of Saddam's Regime Means a Better Chance to Go to Mecca - 2004-01-20

Thousands of Iraqis have begun their journeys to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to visit and worship at Islam's most holy sites. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein participation in the pilgrimage, the haj, was severely restricted, but this year many more Iraqis are free to make the trip.

The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and for any observant Muslim it is a must at least one time in their lives. But, for decades fulfilling this duty has been a problem for many Iraqis.

Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, permission to make the pilgrimage was severely restricted, and was usually granted only after close scrutiny by the secret police.

Those restrictions have now been lifted. In the year 2000, for example, only 7,000 were allowed to make the journey. This year, 30,000 places have been allocated for Iraqi pilgrims by the authorities in Saudi Arabia.

"I could not believe it when I saw my name on the list. I was so filled with joy," said is Abdulrahman Abdulaziz, who will be going to Mecca for the first time. "It was always my aim to go on the haj." He added that the former regime always used security as an excuse to prevent people from going. Now, he said, he can fulfill God's will.

Close to 200,000 Iraqis applied to undertake the haj this year and 30,000 were chosen in a random public lottery.

The member of Iraq's Governing Council in charge of organizing this year's haj, Ibrahim Eli-Shaikr, also known here as Ibrahim al Jafaari, said the lottery worked well and was impartial.

"We gave each name a serial number and we fed that into a computer database," he explained. "Then we had a computer program to organize that data and select names and numbers at random. After the results were announced the lists of people who would be able to go were distributed."

A separate lottery was set up for families of those killed by Saddam's regime.

The Adila Khatoon mosque here in Baghdad is one of the places where people gathered to look for their names on the lists and to make sure their names were properly recorded. But, not everyone was happy with what they found.

One woman said that she really wanted to make this pilgrimage in honor of her mother, who has died. But, she complained, her name was not on the list. She charges that the lottery was rigged. A man tells her that a lottery is based on luck. He said that is fair and people should accept it.

All the same, 72-year-old Abdulrazak Hameed, is sorely disappointed. His name is not on the list either. He said he has never been on the haj, and at his age he wants to go before it is too late. According to him, the lottery was not fair because it did not give older people some preference.

There are plenty of Iraqis who are disappointed that their names were not selected and there has been a certain amount of confusion about logistics. Some people complained that their families were stuck at the border with Kuwait because proper preparation for the crossing had not been made.

But thousands of Iraqis are heading out daily directly across the border into Saudi Arabia, or by way of Kuwait, and for many it is the first time they have had the chance to make this journey.