Washington, Feb. 7--(UPI)--Saudi Arabia arrested eight militants on Friday, a day before more than 2 million Muslims gather in the country's holy Islamic city of Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Saudi authorities have announced unprecedented security measures for the weeklong Hajj celebrations that begin this weekend. Those arrested were involved in a shootout with Saudi security forces in which a Kuwaiti national died last month, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Earlier this week, U.S. officials also have warned Saudi Arabia that pro-al Qaida elements may use the Hajj for staging anti-American protests in Mecca, diplomatic sources told United Press International.

They also indicated possible terrorist attacks at Saudi targets during the annual religious ritual, held to celebrate the sacrifice offered by Abraham's son Ishmael whom the Muslims regard as a prophet. The sources said that U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up discussions indicating al Qaida wants to use religious fervor during the Hajj season to motivate Muslims against America.

Saudi Arabia has already warned that it will not allow anyone to disrupt the Hajj and said it has boosted its security to protect more than 2 million people expected to come for the pilgrimage. More than 1.5 million people had reportedly gathered in Mecca by Friday evening. "Our precautionary security measures for Hajj this year are of the highest order," Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz told a recent news conference. "We will not allow any person or party to disrupt the security of the Hajj. ... Our hand is strong and decisive," added the prince, who also heads the Supreme Hajj Committee, a body responsible for the security of the pilgrims.

On Thursday, Saudi special forces joined 3,000 troops and police already deployed in and around Mecca. Armored cars and a water cannon were also deployed at the nearby Mount Arafat to prevent any attempt to hold a protest rally. Helicopters have been hovering over sacred sites and pilgrims have been checked at police roadblocks at entrances.

Although about 2 million gather in the Middle Eastern country every year for the annual pilgrimage, Hajj has traditionally been a peaceful occasion. Pilgrims spend most of their time in prayer at Islam's two holiest mosques in the cities of Mecca and Medina, where Prophet Mohammed is buried.

But it changed in 1987 when pro-Iranian Muslims held a major anti-U.S. protest in Mecca. This led to a clash with the Saudi security force in which 402 people were killed. Since then, Saudi authorities have not only increased security during the Hajj but have also made it a point to display their ability to deal with any crisis by deploying troops and equipment at public places.

So far this approach has been successful in discouraging those who might have otherwise wanted to avail this large gathering of Muslims to convey their political messages. On several occasions since 1987, the Iranians and others threatened to protest against what they describe as "Saudi highhandedness" but never actually carried out their threat.

Unable to force the Saudis to change their policy, anti-Saudi forces within the Islamic world have demanded that Mecca and Medina be declared free cities and should be run by a special committee comprising representatives of all 156 Islamic nations. "But such demands never received a serious support from the vast majority of the Muslims who want to keep Hajj a peaceful and apolitical event, as it always has been," said Faiz Rehman, director of communications for the American Muslim Council, a Washington-based umbrella organization of North American Muslim groups.

This year's gathering, however, takes place amid escalating tensions over the prospect of a U.S.-led military attack on Iraq and authorities in Saudi Arabia fear some people could try to take advantage of the situation. Tensions over a possible U.S. attack on Iraq are so high that even pro-American Muslim governments are reluctant to openly support a military offensive against Baghdad.

On Friday, three traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan -- urged Washington to look for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis as a war could increase anti-U.S. sentiments in the region.

Saudi officials, among others, are concerned their country's pro-U.S. reputation could place it in the sights of Muslim extremists who could try to disrupt the Hajj. But the Saudi interior minister warned "terrorist organizations seeking to tamper with our security during the Hajj will be dealt an iron fist." "Hajj remains the priority for the pilgrims and I hope nothing will happen," Nayef said after watching a parade of security forces on Thursday who will be guarding the holy sites during the pilgrimage.

Aware of these tensions, the White House issued a statement on Thursday, calling Hajj "a pilgrimage of peace ... of the Islamic religion which is a religion of peace." "There are others, however, that represent a minority of a minority of a minority within the Islamic world who subvert Islam's message of peace, and instead, use the name of God as a way to inspire fear and to try to bring attacks to our country and to other countries," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "This is a time of peace for Muslims," the spokesman told reporters. "Unfortunately, the world has seen that there are some who subvert that message."

Meanwhile, Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alawi has proposed formation of an Arab delegation to visit either the United States or the U.N. Security Council with a plan for the peaceful settlement of the Iraqi crisis, the Saudi Press Agency "I am optimistic that no war will take place," said Alawi. Jordan and Saudi Arabia also have issued similar appeals for giving peace a chance.

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