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Muslim Pilgrims 'Stone The Devil'

Millions of white robed pilgrims threw pebbles at stone pillars Thursday, symbolically stoning the devil in an act of purification. Thanks to extensive construction work, the first day of this annual ritual took place without the congestion that has occasionally led to fatal stampedes.

Across the Arab world Muslims marked the first day of the Feast of Sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar. Palestinians said their celebrations were darkened by a fourth year of fighting with Israelis. Israeli troops raided the West Bank city of Nablus overnight Wednesday, demolishing three buildings allegedly housing militants and arresting 13 Palestinians.

For many Muslims the day began with dawn prayers in a mosque, where the sermons often mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq. At a mosque in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Ahmed Kourani blasted what he called the U.S. "invasion of our lands (Iraq) ... seeking to humiliate us."

In Iraq itself, the streets of the capital Baghdad were quiet Thursday in sharp contrast to Wednesday's five bombings. Cleric Mohammed al-Sumeidi spoke of the city's plight in his sermon: "Baghdad is the city of science, city of kings, city of believers. It has now become the city of explosions and hideout of criminals."

North of Baghdad, insurgents shelled a hospital in Mosul, but did not inflict casualties, and a roadside bomb killed three Iraqi soldiers near Samarra.

In Cairo, Egyptian families strolled along the Nile, children wearing new clothes for the feast and holding balloons. Many people took boat rides on the river.

A group of high school girls said they were delighted to be spending the day together without their parents. They went to mosque together and witnessed the slaughtering of sheep.

"I'm enjoying everything, but I'm wondering what the 'eid' is like for people of our age in Iraq and Palestine," said Fatma Abu Zeid, 16. "Are they happy as we are?"

She said the sermon in her mosque posed the same question.

In the West Bank, Mahmoud Gilani took his four children to a Ferris wheel in the center of Nablus. He said the cost of the conflict with Israel meant that this year he butchered a turkey instead of a sheep.

"What happened during the (Israeli) military operation really hurt us," Gilani said.

However, a Palestinian girl in the same city, Samar Awad, 14, said her father had given her money for new clothes, and she was not going to let the Israeli military spoil her mood.

"I don't see any Israeli jeeps coming, but if they come, I won't be surprised and I will continue to celebrate because I see them all the time," Awad said.

Many Arabs marked the feast — which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God — by visiting the graves of their relatives and holding family lunches where the meat of the slaughtered animals was eaten.

In the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the sermon in the Grand Mosque condemned the Islamic militants who have waged a 20-month campaign of suicide bombings and attacks, focusing on Westerners.

"Branding people as infidels is a dangerous phenomenon that is caused by deviation and extremism," Sheik Abdel-Rahman al-Soudeis told worshippers. He accused the militants of "causing instability, shaking security, and dividing the unity of the (Muslim) community."

At the pilgrimage in Mina, many pilgrims began the day's ritual in the dark hours of Thursday morning, taking advantage of a religious edict that permits them to stone the devil before dawn prayers.

The Saudi authorities spent the past year building wider footbridges to the area where pilgrims hurl stones, erecting wider and taller pillars, and adding two new emergency exits. The aim was to avoid a crush of people such as that which killed 1,426 pilgrims in 1990 and 244 last year.

"We were worried about the crowds, and we had heard some real horror stories, so we feel much better that we made it here early," said Ahmed Sodikin, 56, from Bandung, Indonesia, who came well before dawn.

About 10,000 police officers patrolled the area Thursday to ensure a smooth flow of pilgrims. Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said: "Thanks be to God, no incidents so far."

Egyptian teacher Ahmed Mohei el-Din, 30, who performed the pilgrimage last year, praised the new arrangements, saying: "I could walk and throw my pebbles ... This year was much easier."

After the stoning, most pilgrims walked directly to a slaughter yard where they butchered a sheep, either with their own hands or asking an attendant to do so. Pilgrims paid about 450 riyals ($120 U.S.) for the sheep. Some pilgrims preferred to avoid the slaughter and bought a coupon.

The revenue from the slaughtered sheep and the coupons goes to a fund that pays for the meat to be distributed among low-income people outside Saudi Arabia.

All able-bodied Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage or hajj at least once in their lifetimes, if they can afford it. About two million pilgrims perform the hajj each year.

The pilgrimage begins with the circling of the Kaaba, the large cubic stone structure in Mecca that Muslims face during their five daily prayers. Pilgrims go to the nearby Mount Arafat, where Islam's 7th century prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in A.D. 632, three months before his death.

After the devil-stoning ritual, which will be performed through Saturday this year, pilgrims will shave their heads or clip a lock of hair, and then return to Mecca for a final circling of the Kaaba.

By Adnan Malik

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