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Thousands In Iran Protest Against Saudis As Hajj Begins

Thousands of Iranians marched on September 9 to protest against Saudi Arabia for failing to accommodate Iranian pilgrims on the hajj.
Thousands of Iranians marched on September 9 to protest against Saudi Arabia for failing to accommodate Iranian pilgrims on the hajj.

Thousands of Iranians have marched through the streets of Tehran to protest against Saudi Arabia for failing to accommodate Iranians on the hajj pilgrimage, which starts on September 10.

Though Saudi authorities allocated around 64,000 places for Iranians, none are taking part this year because of a breakdown in negotiations last May over arrangements, including safety measures needed to avoid a repeat of a September 2015 stampede that killed over 2,300 pilgrims.

Iranian and Saudi leaders escalated a war of words this week over Iran's absence from the hajj, which all able-bodied Muslims are expected to complete at least once in their lives.

Demonstrators in Tehran on September 9 waved signs depicting Saudi King Salman holding a bloody sword, his head wrapped in an American flag, and his shirt bearing a blue Star of David similar to that on the Israeli flag.

"Death to Al-Saud and the traitors!" protesters in Tehran shouted. State media reported similar protests across the country.

Demonstrators also shouted slogans against the United States and Britain but saved their harshest criticism for Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have "blocked the path to Allah. It's a crime and they must be tried," said Javad Zolfaghari, a cleric who joined the protests.

"We don't have any problems with the people of Saudi Arabia. They are Sunnis and are our brothers," protester Habibullah Abulfazli told AP. "But the Al-Saud family are puppets of Britain and America. They are fighting proxy wars against Shi'ites and against all Muslims."

Iranian officials have called on Muslims flocking to Mecca from around the world to punish the Saudis for allowing the September 24 stampede and crush of pilgrims last year that killed at least 2,300 people, including 464 Iranians.

The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since September 26. The kingdom has never addressed the discrepancy, nor released results of an investigation authorities promised over the disaster.

This year's monumental rhetorical battle between the two regional rivals is not their first clash over the hajj.

In 1987, Iranian pilgrims on the hajj battled Saudi riot police in clashes that killed at least 402 people. Iran claimed 600 of its pilgrims were killed and did not send pilgrims to the hajj in 1988 and 1989, while Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties over the violence.

Iran has called for an independent body to take over administering the five-day hajj, something the Al-Saud family has refused. The kingdom's stewardship over Islamic holy sites gives it major influence in the Muslim world.

Said Ohadi, the head of Iran's Hajj Organization, told AFP that the Saudis' failure to provide adequate security and make other accommodations for the Iranian faithful was "unacceptable," especially given the 15 to 20 year waiting list to participate.

The Saudis "believe they are the owners -- that Mecca and Medina are their properties," he said. "No, they are the properties of Islam."

With reporting by AP and AFP