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Iraq defies U.N. with pilgrim flight to Saudi Arabia

April 9, 1997
Web posted at: 1:09 p.m. EDT (1709 GMT)

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(CNN) -- An Iraqi plane flying Muslims to the haj pilgrimage in defiance of a United Nations air embargo on Baghdad landed on Wednesday at Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials confirmed.

Earlier in the day, reporters in Baghdad saw the Soviet-built Ilyushin 76 take off from Rasheed airbase in the eastern outskirts of the Iraqi capital on its way to Jeddah.

Diplomats in the kingdom say Saudi Arabia as custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines cannot be seen as denying any Muslim with a valid haj visa the right to perform the pilgrimage, which reaches a climax this year on April 16.

Up to 2 million Muslims, half of them from abroad, perform haj every year to the holy city of Mecca.

Sanctions to punish Iraq


The pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday were on the first international flight dispatched by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein since the U.N. Security Council banned flights in and out of the country after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The U.N. sanctions also prevent Iraq from marketing its oil, except under a special oil-for-food program.

The U.N. Security Council has said that the sanctions will not be lifted until Iraq complies with Gulf War resolutions demanding the elimination of all the country's weapons of mass destruction.

The U.N. Special Commission, charged with monitoring the sanctions, says that Iraq is still withholding information about its chemical and biological weapons programs.

104 pilgrims on plane

Of the 104 pilgrims on Wednesday's flight, 40 were women and all were over 50 years old.

Some said they were sick and could not stand the hardship of the 2,000 km (1,250 miles) land journey to Saudi Arabia.

Senior Iraqi officials, including two ministers, took part in a farewell ceremony before the pilgrims took off.

Not the first time


Wednesday's flight was the second pilgrim plane the kingdom has allowed to land this year in violation of U.N. sanctions.

A Libyan plane carrying pilgrims landed in Jeddah on March 29. It was the third such flight since 1995 by Libya in defiance of U.N. sanctions connected with the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Saudi officials had said Riyadh did "what it had to do" by allowing the first Libyan pilgrim plane to land in 1995.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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