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As hajj begins, five Saudi officers killed

Five Saudi security agents were killed in a shootout with terror suspects in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Thursday as nearly 2-million Muslims from around the world began the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca amid heightened security after a year of terror attacks in the kingdom.

Bombings killed 51 people, including eight Americans, at housing compounds for foreigners in 2003; Saudi and U.S. officials have blamed the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile.

Suspected terrorists exchanged fire with Saudi security forces raiding a house Thursday in Riyadh, and the Interior Ministry said five Saudi agents and the father of a suspect were killed. Several suspects were detained.

But in Mecca, 500 miles to the west, pilgrims said they were too overwhelmed by the spiritual experience of the hajj to be worried about terrorism.

"I do not think that any real Muslim dares to do anything to the pilgrims, God's guests," said Libyan pilgrim Bakr Salem.

Thousands of troops stood watch Thursday as the pilgrims circled the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, in the first ritual of the pilgrimage.

The Kaaba, a large cubic structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers, is considered the house of God.

Iraqi pilgrim Saadi Saber said the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime constituted a new beginning.

"This is the first time we come here after the fall of Saddam's regime and it feels so different _ we are so free," he said.

After the visit to the Grand Mosque, the pilgrims head to Mina, where some 44,000 white, fireproof tents have been set up.

The hajj peaks Saturday with prayers at Mount Arafat, a hill 12 miles southwest of Mecca. The time spent at Mount Arafat symbolizes Judgment Day.