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Wednesday, October 19, 2011     FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

Saudis conducts security exercise for Haj, braces for Iranian surprise

ABU DHABI — Saudi Arabia, bracing for millions of Muslim pilgrims, has staged a security exercise.


Officials said the exercise envisioned an attack on the seat of Islam in Mecca during the Haj pilgrimage, expected to take place Nov. 4-9, Middle East Newsline reported. They said Saudi authorities have been bracing for a range of threats, including from neighboring Iran.

"A special security unit has been set up to prevent individuals who do not possess valid Haj permits from entering Mecca and other holy places," Saudi Maj. Gen. Nasser Al Arfaj, commander of Haj security forces, said.

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During the exercise on Oct. 17, hundreds of troops demonstrated skills in riot control and counter-insurgency. Squads were sent into Mecca's Grand Mosque to operate against mock insurgency squads as well as Muslim protesters.

Another scenario envisioned an insurgency takeover of a building in the huge mosque compound. Officials said the exercise, which sought to draw lessons from the brief takeover of the mosque in 1979, called for hostage negotiations followed by the storming and destruction of the building.

Officials said at least two million Muslims would attend the Haj. They said a key concern has been the infiltration of insurgents as well as migrants from the surrounding Gulf region.

"We have deployed 400 officers to monitor and stop those who try to sneak into the Haj zone through desert roads," Al Arfaj said.

The Saudi commander said his forces would operate on the ground and in the air. He said reconnaissance would focus on the desert roads to Mecca.

"We have set up checkpoints at all entrances to Mecca," Al Arfaj said. "This will prevent the entry of those who do not possess valid Haj permits and reduce the number of illegal pilgrims."

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