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Haj Pilgrimage: Millions Arriving In Mecca
Millions of people have been arriving in Mecca for Islam's annual Haj pilgrimage.
The Grand Mosque, the focal point of the Islamic faith, is already teeming with pilgrims wearing the simple white folds of cloth prescribed for Haj.
Haj must be performed at least once in their lifetime by all Muslims capable of making the expensive, difficult journey - a duty that applies equally to Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims at a time of tension between Islam's main sects.
Saudi leaders have emphasised it is a strictly religious occasion and they are prepared to deal with any troublemaking.
"If anything happens it will be brought under control," interior minister Prince Ahmed said after attending a Mecca march-past where troops paraded water cannon, teargas launchers and even truck-mounted machine guns.
Authorities are keenly aware of past episodes of violence at Haj, such as in 1979, when attackers seized the Grand Mosque, beginning a two-week siege that left hundreds dead.
Despite Saudi Arabia, which is mostly Sunni, locking horns with regional rival Iran, which is mostly Shi'ite, over the conflict in Syria and other disputes, the minister played down the risks of politically-motivated disruption.
Saudi Arabia has backed rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al Assad, an ally of Iran, at a time of already tense relations between Riyadh and Tehran.
Mr Assad and Iranian leaders have both accused Turkey and Gulf Arab countries of arming the rebels, while Riyadh has accused Tehran of stirring unrest in Bahrain and instigating protests among Shi'ite Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Iran has denied those charges and both sides have said they are keen to avoid trouble during Haj.
Last year, nearly three million pilgrims performed the Haj, with roughly a third from inside the conservative kingdom.
The Saudi authorities said there have so far been 1.7 million arrivals from abroad and about 200,000 from inside Saudi Arabia.
All Muslims must face towards the Kaaba, the huge black cube at the centre of the Grand Mosque, five times a day for prayer, making a visit to the sanctuary a powerful experience. Pilgrims must circle it seven times when they arrive in Mecca.
Wednesday is the first official day of the pilgrimage.