By:The Nation News
Reverberations from the hajj disaster that killed at least 717 pilgrims in Mecca were felt across the Middle East and beyond as Iran blamed its rival Saudi Arabia for fatally mis-managing the most important event in the Muslim calendar.
Pilgrims from Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Senegal and Mali were reported to be among the dead and an estimated 850 who were injured during the symbolic stoning of the devil at Mina on Thursday. It was the worst tragedy during the hajj in 25 years and the second deadly accident affecting Mecca this month, after acrane collapse in the holy city killed more than 100.
The incident immediately fuelled tensions between the powerhouse of the Sunni world, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, where thousands of Shia worshippers emerged from Friday prayers in Tehran carrying black banners and chanting anti-Saudi slogans as questions grew about Saudi competence and organisation.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia quickly ordered an urgent safety review into the causes of the crush, to be chaired by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. After pressure from other Muslim countries, Salman admitted there was a need to improve the level of organisation and management of movement of pilgrims.
The death tolls given by foreign officials and international media so far are: Pakistan, 236; Iran, 131; Morocco, 87; India, 14; Egypt, 14; Somalia, 8; Senegal, 5; Tanzania, 4; Turkey, 4; Algeria, 3; Kenya, 3; Indonesia, 3; Burundi, 1; and Netherlands, 1. Iran’s national hajj organisation said 60 Iranian nationals were also injured.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the Saudi government for the disaster. He said: “The Saudi government should accept its responsibility in this bitter incident. We should not overlook that mismanagement and inappropriate conducts caused this disaster.”
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said in New York that the hajj disaster may have happened because the Saudis had transferred experienced troops to Yemen, where the conservative kingdom is fighting Houthi rebels who are supported by the Islamic Republic.
The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, who leads the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said: “There must be improvements in the management of the hajj so that this incident is not repeated.”
There was criticism of statements by some Saudi government ministers. The emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, head of the Nigerian delegation in Mecca, saidSaudi Arabia was wrong to blame the pilgrims. “We are urging the Saudi authorities not to apportion blame for not obeying instructions, they should instead look into the issues of this disaster,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.
Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia was met by angry responses on Arab social media. A UAE cartoonist depicted an Ayatollah Khamenei figure stabbing King Salman in the back. And Saudi Twitter users set up an Arabic hashtag complaining of an Iranian “conspiracy to light the fuse of sectarianism”.
Another hashtag -“Iran kills pilgrims” was used to accuse Iranian “gangs” of deliberately ignoring safety instructions and shouting Shia slogans.
Saudi officials denied reports that the stampede was linked to the arrival in Mina of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the Saudi defence minister, and his security entourage.
The reports were first published by theArabic-language daily al-Diyar – a paper supportive of president Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a bitter enemy of Saudi Arabia. It said the stampede occurred when the one-way traffic directions were reversed to allow the prince’s convoy and 350 personnel to get through so he could see his father, the king.
A statement from the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, strongly denied the allegations, saying: “This is a malicious claim and completely untrue. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s senior dignitaries’ vehicles do not travel through this area.” His statement blamed “Iranian state controlled channels” for starting the rumours.
But Mohammed Jafari, an adviser to Haj and Umrah Travel, the first hajj tour operator in the UK, claimed the alleged road closures were a contributory factor to the crush.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “The Saudis say after every disaster ‘it is God’s will’. It is not God’s will – it is man’s incompetence. Talking to pilgrims on the ground yesterday, the main reason for this accident was that the king, in his palace in Mina, was receiving dignitaries and for this reason they closed two entrances to where the stoning happened … these were the two roads where people were not able to proceed.”
Mohammad Jafari, an adviser to the UK’s oldest hajj travel company, criticised the Mecca authorities on Friday.
“It is the fault of the Saudi government because any time a prince comes along, they close the roads, they don’t think about the disaster waiting to happen.”
A Pakistani couple told a relative they saw no sign of a VIP presence; they noticed pilgrims, their heads uncovered, collapsing due to the heat as Saudi boy scouts and security sprayed them with cold water.
The Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, claimed the pilgrims had been undisciplined. He told local television: “The accident, as most know, was a stampede caused by overcrowding, and also caused by some of the pilgrims not following the movement instructions of the security and hajj ministry.”
Military spokesman Maj Gen Mansour al-Turki said high temperatures and exhaustion may have contributed to the disaster, and that there was no indication the authorities were to blame. “Unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment,” he told Associated Press.
Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the head of Saudi Arabia’s central hajj committee, and the son of the former king, was criticised on social media after reportedly blaming the fatal crush on “some pilgrims with African nationalities”. Jafari accused the Saudi government of making racist statements by suggesting that the stampede was caused by African pilgrims.
An interior ministry spokesman said the investigation would look into what caused an unusual mass of pilgrims to congregate at the location of the disaster. He told a press conference in Mina: “The reason for that is not known yet.”
Bruce Riedel, a US expert on Saudi Arabia, said the hajj deaths would affect the complex internal politics of the Saudi royal family, following recent reports of unusual internal dissent since King Salman came to the throne in January.