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MENA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than 2.5 million Muslim haj pilgrims performed devil-stoning rites on Sunday, amid tight security to prevent overcrowding and protests following the execution of Saddam Hussein.
The 5-day haj, marred by deadly stampedes in recent years, was overshadowed by the hanging on Saturday of the former Iraqi leader, a hero to some Sunni Arabs because of his anti-U.S. stance, but hated by many Shi'ites.
"The prayers of all Muslims when they cast their stones at the devil must be directed at (U.S. President George) Bush and his devilish allies in America and the Arab world."
Ahmed al-Dosary from Kuwait agreed. "I prayed for myself, my family and for the end of the main evil, the United States."
News of Saddam's death had put other Iraqi pilgrims in a jubilant mood, and was seen a gift on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that began on Saturday.
But Saudi Arabia attacked Iraq for despoiling the spirit of the haj, one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion which is a duty for able-bodied Muslims with the means.
"Leaders of Islamic countries should show respect for this blessed occasion ... not demean it," a statement issued by the state news agency SPA said on Saturday.
Security fears were already high during this haj season because of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Saudi Arabia regularly deploys more than 50,000 security men to try to avoid deadly stampedes, as well as attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants opposed to the U.S.-allied Saudi royals.
ANXIOUS FINAL DAY
Pilgrims must repeat the stoning again Monday, the last day, as well as make a final visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca -- raising fears of a disorderly, dangerous surge at the Jamarat Bridge in the rush to finish and leave.
In January, 362 pilgrims were crushed to death in the worst haj tragedy in 16 years as crowds piled on to the bridge, where pilgrims must throw stones at three large walls marking the spot of Satan's temptation of biblical patriarch Abraham.
"I'm not worried. If things go as they have done today there will be nothing to fear tomorrow," said Mohamed Junayyed, a Sri Lankan studying at a religious seminary in Saudi Arabia.
Hundreds of thousands swarmed over the bridge in safety throughout Sunday. New construction work allows 250,000 pilgrims to pass over the Jamarat Bridge each hour.
For the first time, Saudi authorities have also removed most of the pilgrim squatters who in past years set up tents at the side of the bridge.
Saudi government-backed clerics have encouraged pilgrims to stone throughout the day to avoid overcrowding, challenging hardliners who say the rite should be carried out before noon.
"This has to be the busiest but the least troublesome haj I have ever seen," said Khaled al-Saad from Kuwait.
Saudi officials said on Saturday that 2.4 million pilgrims were performing haj. But with hundreds of thousands of local residents sneaking into Mecca without official permits, the total number could be closer to a record 3 million.
Pilgrims, mostly on foot, cover a 44 km route around Mecca during the gruelling rites, as well as walk some 15 km in at least 3 visits to the city's vast mosque complex.
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