JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- A day after pressuring Saudi Arabia to take them in, the Iraqi government ordered 18,000 Iraqi pilgrims home Saturday after Saudi officials refused to use frozen Iraqi funds to pay for the pilgrimage.
The kingdom provided the pilgrims with visas and made all arrangements to house and transport them, but they left without performing any of the rituals, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said.It is a "shame that the Iraqi authorities ordered the pilgrims to go back to Iraq," he told reporters in Mecca, 50 miles east of Jiddah.
Iraq's state-run television reported that all the pilgrims returned to Iraq, crossing the border Saturday. The television also accused Saudi security forces of firing rubber bullets in the air to frighten the pilgrims. Nayef denied any ill treatment.
The decision to go back was as stunning as the pilgrims' entry on Friday after President Saddam Hussein ordered the pilgrims to gather at the Saudi border in a political gambit that forced Saudi Arabia to open its gates.
Saddam had apparently hoped the drama would highlight the harsh effects of U.N. economic sanctions since 1990 that have left most Iraqis too poor to afford the pilgrimage.
But the bus loads of Iraqis returned to southern Iraq late Saturday. The buses stopped at the headquarters of Saddam's ruling Baath Party there.
"First we cheered, danced and clapped," said Adnan Mohammed, remembering the Iraqis' joy at getting into Saudi Arabia. He added that "in the end we cried" in frustration at not being able to perform the hajj.
Qahtan Kadum, a history teacher, said he was upset that "18,000 Muslims crossed hundred of kilometers to make the hajj and then cannot make it because of political differences."
The pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina is Islam's most sacred ritual that all able-bodied Muslims are required to do at least once in a lifetime, if they can afford it. Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the holy sites, has historically welcomed all pilgrims.
After allowing the Iraqis to cross the border, the Saudis said they would pay for their travel and expenses during the hajj even though the two countries have had no formal relations since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq took the unprecedented step of forcing the pilgrims into Saudi Arabia after failing to reach an agreement with the United Nations on funding for the pilgrims, who have virtually no access to foreign currency because of the U.N. economic sanctions imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
The U.N. sanctions committee had considered freeing up $2,000 for each pilgrim from the oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to sell oil to finance humanitarian purchases.
But the plan collapsed when Iraq demanded that the money be deposited in its central bank.
Nayef said the pilgrims made an additional demand when they first reached Arar on Thursday: They wanted their expenses paid out of what they said were Iraqi funds frozen by U.N. sanctions in Arab banks and Saudi banks. He said Saudi officials offered to discuss the issue.
But, apparently unwilling to wait that long, the pilgrims packed their bags and left Mecca on the 18-hour bus ride back to Arar.