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Riyadh, Jan 3: Saudi Arabia has breathed a sigh of relief that the haj pilgrimage of some 2.5 million Muslims to the Islamic holy city of Mecca has ended without the deadly crowding or violent clashes which marred other years.

"I'm sure all security personnel feel satisfaction and relief right now ... The security plan was applied precisely, leading to the great success of this haj,'' Interior Minister Prince Nayef said in comments carried in the Saudi media.

Last January 362 pilgrims were crushed to death during a stone-throwing ritual at the Jamarat Bridge in the worst haj tragedy in 16 years. In 2004 250 people died at the same spot.

Another such incident would have been an embarrassment for the Saudi government, whose legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims lies in its ability to organise a safe haj.

"It is our duty to treat pilgrims well and handle the pressure of such a number of people from different cultures,'' the prince told officers. ''You implemented orders without hurting any pilgrim, even if they swore at you, which is difficult.'' Security police part of a 50,000 deployment to organise and protect the haj had instructions to be stricter than normal in removing pilgrim squatters who often set up makeshift tents and wade through the crowds with personal belongings.

New construction work completed in recent months allowed up to 250,000 pilgrims to pass over the bridge each hour in the last three days of the 5-day haj, which ended yesterday.

"The Custodian of the Holy Shrines (King Abdullah) and our countrymen have the right to feel joyous over this success,'' the daily Okaz said in a jubilant editorial.

The authorities were also on guard for any attacks by al Qaeda militants trying to topple the US-allied Saudi royals since 2003, as well as the spread to Mecca of regional sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

The execution on Saturday of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein also raised the security stakes at the haj, one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion and a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.


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