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Mecca violence threatens to widen conflict

Friday's violence in the Muslim holy city of Mecca has brought Iranian-Saudi Arabian tension to the fore and threatens to open a new front in a growing Iranian confrontation with world and regional powers. The Mecca melee, in which 402 Muslim pilgrims and security men were killed and 649 others injured, broke out during an Iranian political demonstration near the Grand Mosque. The demonstration was one of several held during the current hajj - or pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia - at the urging of leaders in Tehran.

News of the incident spurred angry mobs in Tehran to temporarily take over the Saudi and Kuwaiti Embassies on Saturday. Yesterday, more than a million demonstrators gathered in Tehran, calling for revenge.

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Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, yesterday called on Iranians to avenge the deaths in Mecca by ``uprooting'' the Saudi royal family.

Iranian leaders also accused the United States of ordering the Saudi security forces to use machine guns and tear gas against the Iranian pilgrims, who at the time were reportedly chanting slogans against the US, Israel, and the Soviet Union.

The US State Department said Iranian charges of US involvement are baseless and criticized Iran for using the tragedy for propaganda against the US.

Iran is also using the incident to attack the Islamic credentials of the Saudi royal family. An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement said, ``The flagrant enmity of the Saudi rulers to Islam and the Muslims has become obvious, and it is only apt that the Islamic theologians should take a decisive decision ... and divorce the hands of the Saudi rulers from the holy shrines.''

Analysts say the incident underscores longtime Saudi anxiety over Iran's continuing efforts to export its own brand of fundamentalist Islam to its neighbors in the Gulf region.

The incident is not expected to lead to a direct military confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But it comes at a time when Iran is threatening to attack the Gulf state's offshore oil facilities in retaliation for any renewal of Iraqi attacks on Iranian targets in the Gulf.

To insulate itself from possible Iranian attacks, Saudi Arabia has attempted in recent months to avoid a direct confrontation with Iran and to keep lines of communication open.

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This was the reason Saudi Arabia refused to make its four minesweepers available to US Navy warships in the aftermath of the Bridgeton mine incident, analysts say.

But the Saudis had warned Iran's 155,000-pilgrim contingent in Mecca not to initiate political activities that might disrupt the hajj. Sunni Muslims, such as the Saudi royal family, do not consider political rallies as proper religious activities.

They and other Sunni Gulf rulers view such rallies inspired by the Shia sect as a threat to the status quo and possible incitement to Shiite populations in the Gulf to rise against the ruling families.

Saudi authorities said in a television broadcast Saturday night that 275 Iranian pilgrims had been killed during the clash; 85 Saudi security men and citizens and 42 other pilgrims were also killed.

The television broadcast showed scenes of the melee that Saudi officials say demonstrate that security forces never opened fire on the pilgrims, as Iran had charged. The Saudis maintain that most of the deaths were caused when women and elderly pilgrims fell and were crushed by other Iranians as they stampeded in a ``chaotic retreat'' from security forces.

The Saudis have invited hajj leaders and diplomats to view videotapes and photographs of the incident to counter Iranian claims. Saudi Arabia also called on the thousands of pilgrims who witnessed the incident to tell what they saw.

An Iranian delegation sent to Saudi Arabia Saturday to investigate the deaths returned to Iran after Saudi Arabia accused its members of interfering in internal Saudi matters.

The Saudis maintain that many Iranian pilgrims had armed themselves with knives, sticks, and stones, and that some attacked security officers. Iran charges that security men and bystanders provoked the Iranian procession by throwing stones and glass at them as they walked Mecca's narrow streets.

It remains unclear which side started the violence. But both accounts acknowledge that tempers flared when the procession came to a halt under the hot sun in a huge human traffic jam near the Grand Mosque.

Saudi security efforts had been greatly stepped up since arms were confiscated from Iranian pilgrims in 1982. Two years later, an Iranian was killed and several others injured after a fight broke out between pilgrims from Iran and Iraq.

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