By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran demanded an apology from Saudi Arabia on Sunday over the deaths of 769 people at the haj pilgrimage and accused it of trying to evade blame, while Riyadh in turn accused Tehran of playing politics with the disaster.
At least 155 Iranian pilgrims died in the crush of pilgrims on Thursday near Mecca and 300 other Iranians remain unaccounted for. Iranian officials say that, three days after the incident, they suspect most of the missing are dead too.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Muslim countries should demand Saudi Arabia be held to account for the deaths. The kingdom presents itself as the guardian of Islamic orthodoxy and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.
“Instead of blaming this and that, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologize to the Muslims and the victims’ families,” Khamenei was quoted as saying on his own website.
“The Islamic world has a lot of questions. The death of more than 1,000 people is not a small issue. Muslim countries should focus on this,” Khamenei said.
Other Iranian officials have also alleged the total death toll is more than 1,000. Khamenei ordered the bodies of the Iranian victims to be buried in martyrs’ cemeteries.
Iranians MPs blamed Saudi Arabia for “their mismanagement and incompetence”.
“The Iranian government should follow up this case in Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and ask for shared management of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina during haj,” lawmakers said in a statement published by Fars news agency.
Dozens of protesters gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, chanting “down with the United States and Saudi Arabia.” They were watched by a large contingent of police.
Thursday’s disaster, the worst to befall the haj in 25 years, happened when two large groups of pilgrims converged at a crossroads in Mina, a few kilometers east of Mecca, on their way to perform the “stoning of the devil” ritual at Jamarat.
A Saudi doctor at a hospital near Mecca said he suspected more than 1,000 had died, but cautioned this was only a personal impression.
He said many had died from heat stroke and dehydration as they had remained out under blazing sun for hours after being trapped in the crush.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran is involved in a number of conflicts in Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen, to great opposition from the Sunni Muslim kingdom. The deaths at Mina have heightened the acrimony between the two countries.
A cartoon published by Iran’s Tasnim news agency depicted King Salman of Saudi Arabia as a camel trampling pilgrims.Kayhan newspaper showed him shaking hands with one of the pillars symbolizing the devil in the haj’s stoning ritual.
Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat appeared to blame Iranian pilgrims for the disaster. It quoted comments it said came from Iranian officials saying a group of 300 Iranian pilgrims had set off to perform a ritual ahead of their assigned schedule, leading to a collision with other pilgrims.
The incident cast a shadow over the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran of exploiting the tragedy.
“This is not a situation with which to play politics,” he said before meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday.
“I would hope that the Iranian leaders would be more sensible and more thoughtful with regards to those who perished in this tragedy and wait until we see the results of the investigation.”
Saudi newspaper al-Hayat reported Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif had asked to meet Jubeir on the sidelines of the assembly but his request had been rejected because it “came in an arrogant way and out of place”.
Iran has summoned the Saudi charge d’affaires three times to ask Riyadh for more cooperation over the incident.
“The reports show that Saudis are responsible for this incident by their mismanagement and negligence,” Ali Larijani, Iranian parliament speaker, was quoted as saying by Tasnim.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Marwa al-Malik; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Roche)
File photo: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz