MECCA: More than two million Muslims launch the annual pilgrimage today under heavy security imposed by Saudi authorities determined to crush any disturbances sparked by US threats to attack Iraq.
The journey of faith will get under way in the early hours of today when pilgrims make their way on foot to the Mina Valley to begin the sacred rituals.
An estimated 1.3 million pilgrims from 170 countries had arrived by Tuesday according to official figures, with the final number expected to reach two million.
Saudi authorities have taken extra security precautions this year amid heightened regional tensions as the United States pursues a military build-up in the Gulf ahead of a possible attack on Iraq, a Muslim nation and Saudi Arabia's northern neighbour.
Washington has threatened to invade and occupy Iraq unless President Saddam Hussein agrees to identify and destroy weapons of mass destruction that the United States says he is hiding.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef Abdull Aziz has vowed that his government will crack down on troublemakers during the pilgrimage and confirmed that security had been beefed up because of war preparations in the region.
We will not allow any person or party to disrupt the security of the haj (pilgrimage), Prince Nayef said after inspecting security preparations at holy sites around Mecca.
Tens of thousands of police, security personnel, soldiers and national guardsmen are being deployed at the major sites on the outskirts of the city.
Authorities have also mobilised about 60,000 emergency staff and volunteers, including 5,000 firemen and medical specialists.
Nine helicopters will monitor the proceedings, which will also be scrutinised by 2,000 cameras linked to a high-tech security operation room.
Organisers have erected 44,000 air-cooled and fireproof tents where pilgrims will spend the night before climbing Mount Arafat, 12km south of here, tomorrow for the climax of the haj.
After ascending Mount Arafat, pilgrims stop at the sacred site of Muzdalifa tomorrow night and then head back to Mina where they must sleep the following three nights.
In Muzdalifa, 10km, south of Mecca, men dressed in a two-piece, white seamless cloth known as Ihram and women fully covered except for their faces will collect small rocks to throw at stone pillars representing the devil.
In Mina, in line with Islamic tradition, the faithful hurl the rocks, known as jamarat, at the three pillars each about 18m in height. AFP