Global Policy Forum

Iraq Breaks Sanctions by

Associated Press
March 16, 1999

Iraq sent a planeload of Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, violating U.N. sanctions on behalf of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. An Iraqi cargo plane took off from al-Rasheed air base, south of Baghdad, with 110 pilgrims and landed a few hours later in Jidda, the Saudi entry point for pilgrims going to Mecca. "We have not contacted anybody for approval," the director- general of Iraqi Airways, Rabi Mohammed Saleh, told the Iraqi News Agency.

More flights planned

The U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait bar direct flights to and from Iraq. Iraq has asked previously for exemptions but has been denied. Iraq will send at least two more planeloads of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia during this year's "hajj," or pilgrimage, said Abdel-Munim Ahmed Saleh, the minister of endowment and religious affairs and a passenger on Tuesday's flight.

It was the second time in two years that Iraq has broken U.N. sanctions for the hajj. The government invited international reporters and television crews to cover the plane's departure. State-run radio and television interrupted their programs to say the first group of Iraqi pilgrims had left for Mecca.

Many of the 110 pilgrims, most of them elderly or women, knelt on the tarmac to pray before boarding. Some shouted "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, when they were told to embark. The passengers sat facing each other on benches fixed to the sides of the Russian-made IL-76 plane. "We get into this plane, and our message is that the world should listen to us and understand our problem," said passenger Sheik Hassan Othman, 62.

Iraq rejects U.N. solution

In April 1997, Iraq sent 104 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. The U.N. Security Council responded with a mild statement calling on Baghdad to obtain permission for future flights. Iraq argues the sanctions violate its people's religious rights. Islam requires all able-bodied Muslims to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if they can afford it. Only a few Iraqis can afford a pilgrimage to Mecca -- now at least $1,500. This year about 4,000 are scheduled to make the trip. Most will travel overland.

The U.N. sanctions committee has proposed granting Iraqi pilgrims revenues from the oil-for-food program, in traveler's checks or vouchers. But Iraq has rejected the plan, saying the money should be deposited in its central bank. The United Nations said that would violate the sanctions.

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