Arab pilgrims in Mecca expressed outrage on Saturday that Iraqi authorities had chosen to execute former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on a major religious holiday, saying it was an insult to Muslims.
Sunni Arabs at the haj were shocked at Saddam's hanging which followed his conviction for crimes against humanity against Iraqi Shi'ites.
"His execution on the day of Eid ... is an insult to all Muslims," said Jordanian pilgrim Nidal Mohammad Salah. "What happened is not good because as a head of state, he should not be executed."
The Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, marks biblical patriarch Abraham's willingness to kill his son for God. Muslim countries often pardon criminals to mark the feast, and prisoners are rarely executed at that time.
The death could harden hatred for Shi'ite Muslims in Saudi Arabia, a bastion of Sunni Islam whose Islamic orthodoxy -- known as Wahhabism -- regards Shi'ites as virtual heretics.
"This timing was chosen to turn our joy during Eid to sadness. I don't say this for grief over Saddam ... but we must ready ourselves for a new enemy from the East," a user on an Islamist Web site said, referring to Shi'ites in Iran.
Saddam, a Sunni, was admired by many Arabs for standing up to the United States. Haj authorities fear his death could stoke tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite pilgrims.
Eid falls during the 5-day haj, when more than 2 million Muslims from around the world follow ancient rites at the Islamic Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
"I don't want to believe it. Saddam cannot die. Is this the good news we get on our Eid?" said Saudi Nawaf al-Harbi.
But many Shi'ites regard Saddam's death as a gift from God.
"Congratulations, this is like two Eids! I hope God will not have mercy on him," Iraqi Nadir Abdullah said amid a group of jubilant pilgrims.
Security was already heightened for this haj season because of sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Haj pilgrims dress in simple white garments that can disguise differences of sect and nationality. Many come from outside the Middle East and on Saturday most were preoccupied with the next stage of the rites, the symbolic stoning of the devil at the Jamarat Bridge.
But many felt Saddam's execution would only worsen sectarian violence in Iraq.
"This is unbelievable. Things will not improve in Iraq now that Saddam is dead," said a Syrian pilgrim, Abu Mostafa. "There will be more violence and more Arab anger toward the West."
For Iraqi Kurds like Aladdin Suleiman Mohammad, the execution was a "fair decision" regardless of timing, though it dashed hopes of justice for crimes against Kurds.
Saddam's second trial on charges of war crimes against Iraqi Kurds in what is known as the "Anfal" or "Spoils of War" campaign, had been due to resume next month.
But many Arabs said if anyone should be put on trial it was the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government that backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which overthrew Saddam.
"They are American collaborators, those in Iraq. They should be executed, not Saddam Hussein." said Mohammad Mousa, on haj from Lebanon. "Saddam Hussein is the most honorable of all of them. He is the most honorable Arab. They will go to hell, he will go to heaven."Sphere: Related Content