MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — Libyans long denied the opportunity to make the hajj usually reserved for Moammar Gadhafi's cronies were among the millions of Muslims ascending a holy mountain Saturday to begin the annual five-day pilgrimage.
A red carpet has replaced the Gadhafi green at the Libyan tent camp, and those given preference this year to fill the North African nation's quota were relatives of fighters killed trying to oust the longtime dictator.
Vast crowds of pilgrims — wearing white robes to symbolize purity and equality under God — started at dawn to ascend the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat, 12 miles outside Mecca, where Islam's prophet Mohammed is said to have delivered his farewell sermon.
Saudi authorities say an estimated 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to participate.
Many prayed for peace as the Middle East faces an unprecedented wave of antigovernment protests that has toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and shaken regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.
In his sermon, Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheik, urged Muslims to "solve your problems by dialogue, not through blood. … And to the leaders I say: You must consider God's dictation when you deal with your people."
A celebratory mood dominated the Libyan tent camp more than two weeks after the Oct. 20 capture and killing of Gadhafi, which ended a brutal, eight-month civil war.
Abdul-Hamid Kashlaf, a 45-year-old building inspector from Tripoli, and his wife were chosen along with 7,000 other Libyan pilgrims who lost loved ones for a free hajj trip by the governing National Transitional Council.
His 17-year-old son, Abdul-Bari, was part of a secret cell in Tripoli that helped revolutionary forces overrun the capital in late August and was killed when pro-Gadhafi forces opened fire on him and fellow fighters in a mosque.
Many people offered prayers for antigovernment protesters still facing bloody crackdowns in Syria and Yemen, where hundreds or thousands have died. Among them were Libyan Mohammed Abdul-Salam al-Misrati, 27, who lost his father in the fighting, and Ahmed Garman, 37, who led a group of pilgrims from Aleppo in Syria.
Also planning to climb Arafat were 256 Palestinian prisoners freed in a recent swap for a captured Israeli soldier. Saudi King Abdullah paid for the trip.