Hajj junket: Iraqis stew as officials go to hajj

AP News
Posted: Nov 07, 2011 3:04 PM
Hajj junket: Iraqis stew as officials go to hajj

The Muslim pilgrimage of hajj is a moment of equality before God, with millions massed at Islam's most revered sites asking for forgiveness of sins. Of course, some are more equal than others.

At VIP tents, Iraqi lawmakers and politicians in their white pilgrim robes enjoyed the luxury of soft red carpets and air conditioning, fruit baskets set up on long tables and two refrigerators with cold water and soft drinks. It's conveniently right next to the Jamarat, the site of three walls symbolizing the devil that pilgrims lined up to pelt with stones on Monday.

It's a stark contrast from the camp of their fellow citizens, several miles (kilometers) away, where Iraqi pilgrims crowd into stuffy tents and take hours to make their way on foot through the hot Saudi sun to reach the ritual site.

"The officials are staying at the best places with best services while we are suffering here," said Abbas Abid Ali, a 60-year-old Shiite from Baghdad. He sat on a green plastic mattress after sunset near the Jamarat, where he and others spent the day after trekking from their camp.

"Will these officials get the same treatment on Judgment Day?" he said. "God doesn't differentiate and care about officials and rich people."

Several million Muslims have converged on Saudi Arabia for this year's annual hajj, centered around the holy city of Mecca and several sites in the deserts nearby. During the current part of the rites, the pilgrims stay for several nights in a gigantic tent city sprawling around the Jamarat at Mina, about 11 miles (18 kilometers) outside Mecca, and for three days pelt the walls with stones in a symbolic rejection of the devil's temptations.

Like everywhere, money can buy better conditions for the tiring hajj rites, such as better transport to avoid walking in the massive crowds or more comfortable tents. But some complain that political status also wins special consideration.

Iraqi politicians, for example, get a leg up on even getting the precious, limited spaces to attend hajj. While other Iraqis have to go through a lottery to go, sometimes waiting for years, members of parliament or the government can jump the line and go whenever they want.

"They are taking the right of other Iraqi people who are hoping and waiting patiently for this journey," said Qassim Nasser Missaid, who finally got his chance to go because Iraq dedicates some hajj spots for former political prisoners. Missaid had spent 10 years in prison under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Since so many Muslims around the world want to attend hajj each year, Saudi Arabia imposes a quota for each country, in proportion to its population. That means in most countries, demand far exceeds supply. Arab governments and others often use a lottery system to determine who gets to go. Iraq's allotment is about 33,000 people _ but its politicians are allowed to take some of those spaces without going through the lottery.

And so this year, more than half of Iraq's 325-member parliament put in to go on the pilgrimage with the government's Hajj and Umrah Commission, which over sees the process. A senior official at the commission put the number at 192. He added that roughly 600 government officials or their families are also going.

"Yes, that's embarrassing to us," the official told The Associated Press in an interview in his office. "But what can we do or say? We are under enormous pressure from these parties." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The head of the commission, Mohammed Taqi al-Mawla, threatened to resign earlier this year because he said he was under pressure to give 6,000 extra spaces given to Iraq by Saudi Arabia for this hajj to political blocs and not to the general public.

"Lawmakers should be thinking about the delayed laws rather than going to hajj," said Talal al-Zubaie, a parliament member who said he is not going to hajj and was critical of those running off to the pilgrimage.

"If everybody is going to hajj, I wonder why we have such large number of corruption cases in this country? With the large number of officials going to hajj, we should be the least corrupt country in the world," he added.

Transparency International, an international organization which monitors perceptions of corruption, ranked Iraq 175 out of 178 countries in its 2010 rankings.

Iraq is not alone in this problem. Other Arab countries don't necessarily allow politicians to opt out of the lottery system, but there are frequent reports of officials pulling strings to get themselves a spot.

In 2006 in Indonesia, a former religious affairs minister was convicted of embezzling about $76 million from a fund to help people go on the hajj. His successor scrapped a government policy to pay all hajj costs for government officials, legislators and community leaders. But people were outraged when last year a group of more than 60 legislators, their relatives and staff went on a fully paid "working visit" to Mecca during the holy month.

Similar allegations mar the hajj in Pakistan, where the former religious affairs minister is in prison, facing corruption charges related to hajj expenses.

One Iraqi lawmaker who did make the pilgrimage defended his right to go. A parliament member, he said, "is doing a hard job mostly at midnight. He is a target for the terrorists, and then going to hajj with his own money." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the controversy over lawmakers going.

But for many Iraqis the fact that lawmakers are able to get preference on the trip and are going during such a crucial time when so many issues concerning Iraq's future still need to be resolved, leaves a bad impression.

Abu Abdullah al-Obeidi put his name into the lottery in 2008 and is scheduled to go next year with his wife for the first time. He said the government figures are supposed to serve the people but instead he feels like the people serve them.

"They do not care about the interests of the country because their personal interests are the top priority," he said.


Santana reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia and Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Pakistan contributed to this report.