BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqis who had hoped to make the annual pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca this week angrily accused politicians and religious leaders Tuesday of manipulating the lottery that selected 30,000 people for the sacred trip to Saudi Arabia.
Iraqis carrying scraps of paper scribbled with their lottery numbers crowded mosques throughout Baghdad. Some beat security guards and fought one another when they didn't see their names on rosters of pilgrims. Entrepreneurs seized on the confusion, illegally selling their spots for up to $200 and turning Islam's most precious pilgrimage into just another postwar commodity.
"Angry people have cursed me and hit me," said Mustafa Jaffery, a 20-year-old security guard at a Baghdad mosque. "I have a weapon, but I don't dare hurt them. I know how they feel. They spend the night in the mosque with no food and no money, just praying to go on the hajj."
Encouraged by the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi politicians promised this year to ease the former regime's restrictions on those making the hajj, the annual journey to Mecca required for able-bodied Muslims at least once in a lifetime. Organizers did away with age, sex and financial barriers and gave special privileges to the relatives of those killed by Saddam Hussein's security forces. A record number of Iraqis will depart Thursday.
Nice hotels, three meals a day and round-trip travel are subsidized by the interim Iraqi government, with pilgrims paying $600 per person for a trip that typically costs more than $2,000.
Those improvements overwhelmed Iraq's fragile infrastructure, as evidenced by the tears and shouts of the men and women who gathered at Baghdad's 16 hajj information centers Tuesday to protest the selection process.
Last month, a nationwide lottery, overseen by members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, was held to choose 30,000 pilgrims from hundreds of thousands of hopefuls. The latest rosters were just released Monday and Tuesday. Several members and employees of the Governing Council are among this year's pilgrims.
"From 1990 to 2003, Iraq never had its fair share of people going to hajj," said Abd al Satar al Jabari, the deputy director of hajj and religious affairs for Baghdad. "With so many people able to go this year, the lottery was our only solution. The people criticizing us are the ones who didn't see their names on the list. Of course, the ones chosen said it was a clean, honest lottery."
Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iraq after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, and a quota set by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 mostly Muslim nations, permitted Iraq to send no more than 22,000 pilgrims to Mecca each year.
At the mosque, heartbroken Iraqis said hajj organizers guaranteed spots to relatives, sold places to political backers and made obtaining passports and visas impossibly bureaucratic.
Iraqi officials sent a delegation to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in recent weeks, asking Saudi officials to at least double the country's quota for Iraqi pilgrims, to 60,000 people. The Saudis eventually agreed to accept 30,000 Iraqis for hajj, including several thousand spaces reserved for the families of "martyrs," the term used for Iraqis executed by members of Saddam's regime. As word of a possible Iraqi uprising in Mecca surfaced, however, the Saudis, who have weathered a series of attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group, reduced the number of martyr spaces, dashing the hopes of some would-be pilgrims who initially won spots in the lottery.
Crowds jostled their way to the windows of an understaffed passport center Tuesday, where young men smoking cigarettes languidly stamped travel papers.
"The organizers took care of their own personal interests," said Baquis Hassoun, 53, who traveled to Baghdad from the southern town of Hilla to find she wasn't selected. "It's useless now to lodge a complaint. We are supposed to leave in two days. There is no time to fix this."
Buses festooned with Islamic flags and verses from the Quran will leave Thursday to carry the pilgrims to neighboring Kuwait. From there, they will fly to Saudi Arabia to join the estimated 2 million worshipers who converge on Mecca each year. Hajj coincides with Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which marks the sacrifice of Ibrahim, as the prophet Abraham is known to Muslims.
For thousands either left out of the lottery or who lost their promised spaces, buying slots on the black market was the last hope.
Religious officials said selling slots was forbidden because Muslims weren't allowed to profit from the hajj.
Al Jabari, of the hajj council in Baghdad, said he had confiscated dozens of forged passports from people who purchased the names of legitimate pilgrims and drew up false travel papers.
Outside al Jabari's office, a 50-year-old man who gave his name only as Khaled offered his space at the bargain price of $100. Two women negotiating with him tried to bundle him into a taxi to prevent others from outbidding them.
"What bad luck we have," one of the women said when she noticed a journalist taking notes on the haggling. "Reporters are here just as we are trying to finish a deal."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HAJJ