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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 20:08 GMT

World: Middle East

Iraqi pilgrims break sanctions

Iraq says the pilgrimmage shows the strength of its people

By Richard Downes in Baghdad

An Iraqi Airways plane carrying over 100 pilgrims has left Baghdad for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

The plane flew in contravention of the United Nations sanctions which have been in place since 1990.

Many pilgrims were unaware that they were violating any sanctions, nor did they know that they could have been in danger from United States and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone south of Baghdad.

Most were just happy to fulfil their religious obligation to visit the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

'Steadfastness and strength'

The pilgrims were led by the Religious Affairs Minister, Abdel-Munim Ahmed-Saleh, who said the flight was a sign of the steadfastness and the strength of the Iraqi people.

The aeroplane was an old Soviet-built cargo craft adapted for the purpose, and the military airport it took off from was run down and ramshackle.

[ image: Mecca attracts thousands of pilgrims]
Mecca attracts thousands of pilgrims
Nine years of sanctions have turned Iraq into a poor country, with outdated infrastructure, and even participation in the annual Hajj is suffering.

Iraq has not taken up its quota of pilgrims for the annual journey to Saudi Arabia in order to save money.

The government's defiance of the international embargo will, however, be popular in the country and among the millions of Muslims gathering in Saudi Arabia.

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