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18,000 Iraqi Pilgrims Return Home at Hussein's Command

March 21, 1999| From Times Wire Services

JIDDA, 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 annual hajj 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, saidSaudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz.

Iraq's state-run television said all the pilgrims had returned to Iraq on Saturday.

Iraq had accused Saudi Arabia of surrounding its pilgrims with tanks and armored vehicles, forcing Baghdad to decide they should be recalled home.

"The Saudi authorities surrounded our pilgrims' complex with heavy tanks and armored vehicles and deployed soldiers who carried weapons and automatic rifles . . . aimed at Iraqi pilgrims," Baghdad television quoted Mohsein Fahim Farhood, an advisor at the Presidential Office who accompanied the pilgrims, as saying.

"These soldiers fired rubber bullets in order to frighten our pilgrims in an attempt to provoke them in order to accuse them of riots," he said.

Nayif denied any ill treatment of the pilgrims.

Baghdad television also quoted Farhood as saying the Saudis turned down an Iraqi demand that expenses of the pilgrims be withdrawn from Iraq's assets frozen in Arab and foreign banks.

Farhood said the Iraqi pilgrims had turned down an offer from King Fahd to pay for their trip and headed home.

The decision to return home was as stunning as the pilgrims' entry into Saudi Arabia on Friday after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the pilgrims to gather at the Saudi border in a political gambit that forced Saudi Arabia to open its gates.

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