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With Hussein gone, more Iraqis seek visit to Mecca

It is one of the five pillars of Islam: the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must complete once in life, if possible.

But in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, millions never got the chance.

The regime that added the phrase "God is great" to the nation's flag barred vast numbers of its citizens from participating in one of their most sacred duties with rules that some Iraqis now refer to as criminal. Men in the military _ Iraq's army included a half-million _ could not go to Mecca. Neither could men younger than 54. Nor unaccompanied women.

And those few who were not excluded were often bumped aside by those close to Hussein's family or his ruling Baath party, ordinary Iraqis and imams complain.

"Saddam did it for political reasons," snapped Mohammad Musil as he came from his evening prayers. "He wanted people to focus only on Baath ideology."

But Hussein's rules were extinguished with his government, and word came down in December through Iraq's network of mosques that any adult could apply to make the hajj.

The results have been explosive, said Thaer Ibrahim, the director of pilgrim affairs for the Ministry of Religious Affairs: Where in the past no more than 80,000 Iraqis had registered for the hajj, this year 197,000 applied in less than a month.

"It's hard to describe the excitement and joy of the Iraqi people when they heard the restrictions were canceled," said Ibrahim, an imam. "It's been many long years for Iraqis, who kept their feelings inside, (along with) the pain and the desire to go to Mecca and fulfill their religious duties."

The demand was so large that a delegation of Iraqi officials traveled to Saudi Arabia to ask that the pent-up demand be met. Using a formula based on population, the Saudis determine how many pilgrims will be admitted to Mecca from each Islamic nation during the hajj season, the rituals for which begin this week.

After the meeting, the Saudis raised Iraq's quota from 25,000 to 30,000, and officials said they were hoping even more could go. Because of Hussein's strictures, Iraq sometimes did not even meet its quotas: 15,000 pilgrims made the hajj last year.

500 pairs of boots without soldiers

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace and social justice group, has placed 500 combat boots _ signifying the first 500 U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq _ in downtown Chicago. "Admit that this war was fought under false pretenses," said regional director Michael McConnell.