JEDDAH: Braving the swine flu pandemic and security concerns, more than 2.5 million Muslim faithful are descending on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina this week for the hajj.
Under heightened monitoring by some 20,000 medical staff and more than 100,000 security personnel, the world s largest annual pilgrimage kicks off on Wednesday in western Saudi Arabia.
Four deaths from the A(H1N1) virus announced on Saturday – the first among pilgrims – served as a warning to the faithful who have mostly eschewed surgical masks and other preventive measures.
But the number was less than had been feared by the Saudi authorities.
Pilgrims from all over the world have poured into Saudi Arabia, by plane, bus and boat since October, for what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Among the other concerns, Saudi officials are hoping also that repeated deadly stampedes – the last in 2006 left 364 dead – are a thing of the past.
Builders just completed a massive five-storey pedestrian walkway for the most crowded stage of the hajj – the stoning of the devil at the Jamarat in Mina valley – designed to avoid the panics of the past.
The 950 meter (3,135 foot) long, 80 meter (264 foot) wide bridge cost $1.2 billion.
Swine flu has been a major concern since it reached pandemic level earlier this year.
By Saturday, only 20 pilgrims had been diagnosed with the disease. Twelve had been treated and discharged, four died and four remained in hospital.
Health ministry spokesman Dr. Khaled Marghlani said the four dead – three 75-year-olds and a teenage Nigerian girl – all had health problems ranging from chest infection to cancer that made them highly vulnerable.
They all had pre-existing conditions, Marghlani told AFP.
After a May conference of international health experts, Saudis decided not to ban pilgrims from higher-risk groups – the elderly, children and the already ill.
With the Hajj a duty for all able Muslims, Riyadh instead urged governments around the world to restrict the pilgrimage to healthy adults between 18 and 65.
Doctors monitoring airport arrivals said there seemed to be fewer children and elderly this year, but not a sharp reduction.
As a precaution, Saudi Arabia has provided additional doctors and hospital beds, and stockpiled 1.5 million units of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to treat flu victims.
We have six health clinics in the Grand Mosque itself, working 24 hours, Dr Abdullah Al-Rabeeah said.
But Rabeeah said he hopes as many as 20 percent of pilgrims will have been vaccinated against H1N1 before arriving.
We had the vaccination, but we are still worried a little bit, said Swaliha Khan just after arriving with her husband in Jeddah on Saturday from Ahmadabad, India.
The run-up to the pilgrimage saw a war of words between the staunchly Sunni Saudi authorities and Shiite Iran, the fiercest in years.
Last month, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad charged that Saudi Arabia might mistreat the 65,000 pilgrims from Iran, the vast majority of whom are Shiite.
Leading Saudi officials and clerics rejected the Iranian accusation and warned Tehran not to abuse the hajj for political purposes.
Disturbances involving Iranian pilgrims killed more than 400 people in 1987.
General Mansur Al-Turki, the interior ministry official in charge of hajj security, said he does not expect trouble, but warned that protests are prohibited in the hajj and we will not let them take place.
We will not allow any actions that might disturb any other pilgrims, or affect their safety, he told AFP.
Turki s focus is also on the possibility that Al-Qaeda could try to use the hajj as an opportunity to launch an attack on the kingdom.
Already this year, Saudi authorities have thwarted several attempted attacks by Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which is based in neighboring Yemen.
In late August one AQAP militant, pretending to turn himself in to the country s security czar, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, exploded a small bomb in the prince s Jeddah palace.
Only the would-be assassin was killed, but the attempt shocked the government.
This year s pilgrimage marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most stunning attacks in Saudi history, the Nov. 20, 1979 seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a band of Muslim extremists.
It took two weeks for the Saudi army assisted by French special forces to invade the holy sanctuary and eject the group in close combat that cost hundreds of lives.
We are taking all the countermeasures to make sure nothing like that could happen again, said Turki.