Not Even the Hajj is Free of Corruption

RAMADI — Many Iraqis are angry that the government seems to be picking favourites for the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslims are obliged to carry out the pilgrimage, as long as they are able-bodied and can afford to, at least once in their lifetime.

Saudi Arabia, where the holy site of Mecca is located, limits the number of pilgrims to one in every 1,000 people of the total population of each Islamic country. The quota for Iraq for the last four years was agreed at 28,000 pilgrims.

Iraqis who want to go on the pilgrimage say officials have issued approvals only for relatives and party members. The Iraqi government led by U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is Shia dominated, and many Iraqis say selection for the pilgrimage is sectarian.

“It is a shame that corruption now goes as far as the Hajj,” Sheikh Fadhil Mahmood of the Sunni religious group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, told IPS in Ramadi, 110 km west of Baghdad.

“This is the fifth year that many Iraqis are deprived of their right to go to Mecca, while those who are members of parties in power, and militiamen, go every year. Most of our pilgrims are going for political and commercial purposes.”

A member of the Hajj committee in al-Anbar province, which is largely Sunni, spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity about guidelines for selecting pilgrims.

“There are two sets of regulations that we received for accepting candidates — one is what we tell people, and the other is what is under the table,” he said. “The one under the table is mainly for members of the Islamic Party, the Accordance Bloc and the so-called Awakening Forces (Sunni fighters now on the U.S.-payroll) who go to Saudi Arabia to make commercial deals and to strengthen their political ties with the officials there.”

Applicants for Hajj line up in long queues every day with heavy files containing their personal documentation. They almost all queue in despair.

“This is the fourth time that I applied, but I do not think my name will be enlisted,” 55-year-old retired teacher Mahmood al-Rawi told IPS. “I know many people who went to Mecca several times because they belong to a party or have relatives in the government. Others got approval after paying 700 dollars to committee members as a bribe.”

The Hajj is from the 8th to the 12th day of Dhul Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. In the early 21st century, this date will come during the November-January timeframe. This year, the week of Hajj begins Dec. 18.

Not just Sunni Muslims, many Shias too speak of discrimination. “You must be of Iranian origin,” Abdul Hassan Jawad from Karbala City, 90 km south of Baghdad, told IPS on telephone. “Hajj under occupation is limited to followers of (Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali) al-Sistani with small shares for the (Shia) Fadhila Party and the (Shia cleric Muqtada) al-Sadr movement.”

“We believe that Saudi authorities must find new regulations for Iraqi pilgrims away from any interference by this corrupted Iraqi government,” Salman Tahir, human rights activist in the Hurriya quarter of western Baghdad told IPS. “Both Sunni and Shia officials are corrupt, and they are using this holy season to increase their influence and money. We believe that application for pilgrimage should be made directly to the Saudis in order to avoid this mass corruption.”

Others blame the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq for this too. “Politics under occupation has corrupted everything,” Ramadi resident Haydar Hussein told IPS. “The corruption is the produce of the U.S. occupation and its selection of Iraqi staff. All this is adding up to more hatred amongst Iraqis.”

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)