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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mina Hajj Tragedy: Saudi Arabia Blames Iran

Mina Hajj Tragedy: Saudi Arabia Blames Iran
October 3/4, 2015
(last edits Oct. 4, princes updated and minor edits)

The massive human compression tragedy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) just over a week ago is one of the deadliest in recent memory. The September 24 "stampede" during the Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) claimed  at least the 769 lives the kingdom claims, probably over 1,000 and maybe over 1,500, as claimed by Iran, who lost far and away the most citizens - nearly 500.

This tragic event was not a deliberate massacre, one presumes. But it was at least preventable (to all but the the few minds in the kingdom who declared it an "act of God"). It's being marketed and anti-marketed  on the world stage, in a drama involving Saudi Arabia and Iran - players in the Syria and Iraq conflicts that can be "defamed" by this - by false versions or by the truth, depending. How can I not be tempted to dive in?

With small but valuable input from others, I've been hashing over this with the ACLOS wiki article and its talk page. The news has covered this incident and Iran's massive share in the loss - currently at least 464 considered or confirmed dead. Tehran claims embassy staff were denied visas to come help identify the victims, amid talk of mass burial together inside the kingdom. This is all being negotiated, but if Iran's numbers are right, KSA so far also claims it just never found at least half of the Iranian victims, besides however many of the hundreds still just "missing" from other countries. 

Everyone knows Shi'ite Iran blames its Sunni rival Saudi Arabia for incompetence or worse, and most even seem to understand why. But less visibly, the seeds of the dubious inverse story - where Saudi Arabia blames Iran - might be sown already. The charge isn't yet overt, but I sense this is coming, and is worth calling out in advance, even at the risk of halting their plans and mooting my prediction.

Disputed Cause: Inept or Worse vs. Unruly or Worse
Until I see reason to do otherwise, my general presumption of the cause is mainly an accidental storm of the many mental ailments accumulating for nearly 300 years of al-Saud family totalitarian rule. General incompetence and bungling might be enhanced by entrenched and extreme sectarian bigotry against Shi'ites, little regard for the truth, and willingness to use barbaric means to achieve any amoral goal they decide on, all left unhinged by a lack of accountability.

By my cursory reading so far, survivor accounts bear that out, citing poor management and general callousness adding to the disaster in various ways. But some alleged details go beyond that and point in a disturbing direction - police keeping help at bay and discriminating against Iranians in delivering aid, and so helping ensure as many victims as possible - especially Iranians - died from the ordeal (see here, for example). 

Further, Saudi authorities may have initiated the tragic wrong move. Many reports blame the blockage of a street 206 (see here and here) by royal escort for Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, a son of king Salman. Some say he's the Chairman of the Higher Committee for Haj, and so they may mean a different prince (Khaled bin Faisal?). It's a crucial allegation with some confusion best covered in detail elsewhere, but some prince allegedly made an unusual visit to Mina for unclear reasons, with his massive security buffer leading to the closure of "street 206" in Mina, disrupting the traffic flow, and thus causing the crush.

The main point here is KSA denies this possibility quite clearly in the media (second link above). Consider also the incident mapping by royal-owned al-Arabiya shown below, that gives the wrong incident location and denies any connection between it and this disputed street 206. This visual denial just underlines the problem by displaying touchiness on the subject. 

But the denial they aim for helps keep the blame slot open to fill, so far, with random improprieties by poorly-trained pilgrims violating movement rules all on their own. First, it was reported African Hajis were reportedly blamed. This was met with ridicule, but actually may have never been said (KSA denies it and I can't find the source). But it's undeniable they've blamed unruly Iranians, and they may consider it more than a simple mistake. We'll get to the details of that shortly.

Disputed Death Toll: Hundreds "Missing"
For the first week, Iran had a large batch of citizens, numbering around 300 (now lower, once higher)  whom they persistently listed as missing - not vouched for as dead or injured, but out of contact. Each day they failed to turn up after disappearing on the day so many died the more likely they were to be simply dead. 

The first published count of missing Iranians was 344. That shrank by 103 to 241 missing by the 29th. In the same span, confirmed deaths rose from 136 to 239, an increase of ... 103. The pattern down the line seemed to be that the "missing" were all laying dead in Saudi Arabia but with delayed confirmation. Carried over to the last 241, it seemed likely that as many as 480 Iranians were killed. And Tehran now say it was 464, then 465 and likely to inch up a bit higher.

So many Iranians killed in a prentable mishap in the virulently anti-Iranian Kingdom is something its rulers might want to cover up. They've offered no official number of Iranian dead, but have stuck to their overall death toll of 769, too low to allow nearly that many Iranians. So, they implicitly deny it.

Iran's consistent range: "at least" 1,200/1,300 killed, "expected" to exceed 1,500, or perhaps "2,000" if rounding up. (The dramatic 4,000 claim is a fluke with no support). But an AP study found Iran's total plus other nation's confirmed death tolls is over 1,000, with 600 still "missing" like Iran's 300 once were (see here) Numerous ways of counting of 1,000 or more have piled up, but are formally refuted; since the 25th, KSA has stuck with 769 and denied all arguments for a higher number - perhaps because denying half their dead is part of their plan to blame Iran. And they may feel locked into that dispute.
Other nations have/had comparable numbers of "missing" and likely dead (Egypt and Nigeria especially) but only Iran has that on top of so many confirmed dead, and has made the dramatic leap to all dead. And only they are now apparently set to take the blame.

The open cause and disputed fatalities may be foundations for a looming accusation that Tehran somehow set this all up to embarrass the noble kingdom. On the one hand it was an "act of God," on the other hand it was perhaps an Iranian plot, but in no way shape or form was it any fault of the noble kingdom 

Suggested Motive for this Iranian Plot
The apparent motive is fairly clear, and the one part of the proposition that works. The episode plays perfectly into Iran's ongoing campaign to improve their perception in the world, to weaken Saudi influence and prestige, and lately to de-Saudize the Hajj. When a giant crane collapse killed 111 pilgrims at the grand mosque two weeks earlier, including one of Iran's top space scientists, Tehran was already calling Saudi management inept at best. As the Hajj belongs to all Muslims, they argued, it should be managed by all, working through the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). That call has gained far more acceptance outside Iran after the September 24 incident.

This reasonable solution to a real problem, on top of nuclear agreements and a supposed thaw with the West, turns in the Syrian conflict, and their mammoth tragedy added up quick; the world uncomfortably finds itself sympathizing with and almost cheering for Iran.

With a compelling motive, it all comes down to moral willingness to follow through, and that's a no-brainer to Saudi-sponsored "thinkers" - those villainous Shia will sacrifice any number of their people just to smear the kingdom and to garner this global sympathy. In fact, it's unlikely that would have happened without a dramatically large death toll among Iranians, and so we can even see a potential motive to take that hit.

This semi-logical reason to suspect Tehran, coupled with the need to keep the blame off themselves, might make blaming Iran irresistible to KSA. See now some Saudis who can see that motive, like this editorial in Asharq Al-Awsat English (London-based but Saudi-supported):
It is a never-ending story. Whenever an emergency occurs during the Hajj season, certain parties blame Saudi Arabia who, nevertheless, continues to give pilgrims top priority. [...] When the tragic stampede occurred in Mina, Saudi Arabia was blamed again by those who seem to have wished for the accident to happen in order to exploit it politically.
Perhaps with this in mind, the foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir, standing with Secretary of State John Kerry, said: “I believe the Iranians should know better than to play politics with a tragedy that has befallen people who were performing their most sacred religious duty.” Jubeir vowed a full and open investigation and truth, and that anyone who made mistakes "will be held accountable." That's sure to be true if they decide the guilty were Iranians and their mistakes were intentional.

Suggested Plot Mechanics: 300 Suicide Saboteurs?
One problem with this potential allegation is the question of how he plotters could engineer a mass casualty event inside KSA without the Saudis detecting and halting the operation. The question doesn't seem very well-answered yet.

Recalling the once-missing Iranians, once numbering 344, it's interesting how KSA also both made them "missing" by not verifying their deaths and also had at that time a batch of "around 300" Iranians who they say caused the tragedy. The numerical similarity itself might be a coincidence, but the guilty Iranians are clearly alleged and must be considered. Some pass the story on eagerly as the way out of the mess: pro-Saudi Arab News is widely cited in blasting Crush Cause: 300 Iranians violated rule. They cite "sister publication" Asharq al-Awsaat, who ran Hajj stampeded caused by Iranian pilgrims not following instructions: Hajj mission official on September 26.

The alleged source is an anonymous (and so unverifiable) official from Iran’s Hajj mission, so an insider, who they say "revealed" (to AA exclusively, it seems)  a story totally contrary to the one real Iranians were telling. The article says he told them all the problems began:
...after a group of around 300 Iranian pilgrims failed to follow orders requiring them to wait for clearance to leave Jamarat—the site where pilgrims perform the “stoning the devil” ritual. Instead, the group went back to their mission’s headquarters as other groups were on their way to the site as scheduled, according to the official. “The group stopped for a while, causing the coming pilgrims to take a route no more than 20 meters wide,” he said, adding that such behavior often leads to tragic consequences in crowded areas. The Iranian pilgrims were scheduled to leave Jamarat hours after the accident took place, the official said.
So KSA media tells us these victims were instructed to wait at the bridge but for unclear reasons they turned back to the their tents, which jammed up the chute as the next batch was coming in. That would presumably be accidental, leading as it did to the death of hundreds of fellow Iranians, probably including themselves. But some people may be arguing otherwise.

Alleged Iranian Movements
This is a little complicated. At right, an area map set to true north. Mecca and the grand mosque are to the west. Here is the Jamarat bridge structure, site of the "stoning the devil" ritual, and the tent city of Mina to the southeast. The incident was in the near end of Mina from Jamarat. Movements will be explained.

Daily Star (Bangladesh) reports on Saudi claims the suspect group of 300 "did not follow the instruction to go to their tents from Muzdalifah (to the south, apparently) and went to Jamarat with their baggage, the Saudi media said. “They had been instructed to take rest in their tents and wait for the time allotted for them to perform their stoning ritual.”" That would be northbound towards the bridge area. The problem: they were in a hurry to get to the site, and got there at the wrong time.

Then another wrong move. A report from 5khtawat.com, auto-translated from Arabic, says Al-Arabiya reported this first; 300 Iranians "decided to return in the opposite direction after" the stoning ritual. An included al-Arabiya video (Youtube direct link) shows a computer animation of the scene and the allegation. The defiant Iranians' wrong moves - north past the tent city (from another site to the south) and then southeast into Mina from Jamarat - are shown in this.

So they were allowed in at the wrong time, and told they had to stay for their full wrong time slot. But again they walked the wrong way at the wrong time and - get this - no one stopped them on safety grounds, or put in a call to adjust traffic or anything, as the disaster unfolded at walking speed over more than a kilometer. Even if this story is true, Saudi handling of the incident was terrible - and the story is most likely not true.

I found the actual September 26 Al-Arabiya report (Arabic): Iran Hajj mission official: 300 reversing Iranian pilgrims behind the stampede As auto-translated, this explains:
The official said, in an interview with the Middle East (Asharq al-Awsat) "The violation details began when this group ... moved Thursday morning directly to the stoning ritual and did not come down in their allocated camps as is the case for the whole of pilgrims to put their belongings and wait for an appointment time, and then went contrary to the trend at 204 Street . "
The official added that this made up of about 300 pilgrims Iranian group, did not wait for the completion of throwing cinder Aqaba, according to the instructions which demands that you wait in the camp until the deadline, and decided to go back in the opposite direction, which coincided with the exit other missions by the ad hoc schedule for the stoning ritual , and resulted in a direct collision with human blocs. 
I thought at first AA was claiming these Iranians left the site of the crush alive, but it seems that referred to Jamarat. However, Riyadh does insist on a low number of victims and refused to acknowledge nearly 300 Iranians as dead. So this might be, or might have been, an unspecified plank of their case - the instigators somehow caused the event and just walked away. That would be a third wrong (alleged) move authorities also failed (allegedly) to prevent.

Why is the incident mapped wrong? 
The incident is mapped wrong in al-Arabiya's video, if not in their whole narrative. For reference, here's the area the evidence suggests, and its connecting streets. All agree people died on street 204. By most sources the crush was at the intersection of that and 223, with dead on both streets. The photo at top was taken on street 223, facing southwest towards 204 in the early afternoon (metal roofed structure starts at picture's right edge). I'm not clear yet on which directions the victims on 204 were concentrated in, or how each group was moving, but people clearly died on 223 as well as on 204.

But Saudi sources seem to deny this. As shown at right, al-Arabiya's animation has the collision happening entirely on a straight stretch of street 204, well south of the intersection. A blind corner would make more sense, but here two groups just kept on walking and pushing towards each other, despite being able to see it coming for some time. (on the left, northbound pilgrims headed to the stoning ritual, right, stationary Iranians jamming things up. Red is center of disaster. Orange I guess is ways the left group was forced to divert into but couldn't, due to poor site design that leaves pilgrims jammed into inescapable chutes.

The corner it happened at makes more sense than this, but the real site includes street 223, and that connects to street 206, allegedly blocked for the crown prince. And in this Saudi animated version of the incident - coincidentally - that intersection explicitly does not even exist. An imaginary row of tents prevents any real intersection, and so 206 must be unconnected. Not that anything happened there anyway, right? What a move. What can this verifiable map alteration do except show how touchy they are about the 206 connection?

Re-Considering the Original Story
Details like this may be added to the "revealed" story, and the core issue remains: is the Hajj official's alleged statement real, or just an unverifiable work of fiction? Was it perhaps distorted from a true conversation? Here's a narrative to consider:

The Hajj mission (there won't be an embassy, obviously) got several calls from this group of about 300 Iranians, as they turned back unexpectedly - and maybe there were details about why that the Mission didn't mention or that Aawsat chose to ignore. The mission told the Saudi authorities that they feared these people were among the dead, simply giving a last known location and direction of travel, hoping for information. Maybe these parts were also left out of the version handed to al-Awsat, and then the distorted plea was re-packaged as some whistle-blower's smoking gun testimony that the Iranian victims may have deliberately set this up.

Do note that anyone in the crush is also a witness to their part of this incident. Those speaking so far seem to be relatively unaware of what caused the initial wrong move, although the closure of street 206 is mentioned. These accounts are from the ones who lived, who will tend to be those on top, originally furthest back from the initial spark of the tragedy.

In contrast, the pilgrims who changed direction - after encountering the crown prince's guard or not - share these traits:
* Were allegedly Iranians and numbered around 300
* In turning around they allegedly caused the tragedy
* They would know the most about why they turned around
* If it was because of 206 being closed, they'd be southwest-bound on street 223, the denied area.
* By the stats, they overwhelmingly wound up dead and unable to tell us why they turned around.

I don't suppose this was actually set up by the House of Saud either just to kill some Iranians and then have to come up with some bizarre explanation. These Iranians couldn't both cause a deadly stampede and walk away. In the end they'll have to blame suicide saboteurs if they follow through on this, and having to do that hardly seems like something they'd want to do. But once there was an incident sufficient to spark panicked thinking, this is what a senile dynasty's thinkers might come up with to deflect blame. And consider how the field would be left open for them to give it a try if the best witnesses wound up dead.

Suicide Ringleader? Ambassador Roknabadi
One of Iran's more prominent missing likely victims of the tragedy is Ghazanfar Roknabadi, their former ambassador to Lebanon and apparently still an influential figure. He joins two news reporters and a prominent political analyst on that list, state media reported. Like them, he was consistently reported missing for the first week - not confirmed as dead or injured but not answering his phone, and now considered dead.

Allegedly, Saudi authorities have denied Roknabadi was even in the kingdom at all, unless he sneaked in on some secret work. The original report is credited to al-Arabiya, and heartily refuted in Iran. Press TV (Iranian state-run) reports
The Saudi-owned Arabic-language TV channel Al Arabiya claimed earlier in the day that there had been no official records showing that Roknabadi had arrived in the Saudi territory for performing Hajj rituals. The report said that the diplomat could have entered the kingdom through unofficial channels.
This implies clandestine work, perhaps with a fake Hajj stamp, and up to no good. Perhaps with the media people he sneaked his way right up to this disaster, and helped set upthe mob of saboteurs hell-bent on crashing themselves into the kingdom's public reputation to help Tehran make its arguments. If Iran insists on showing he was there, it's proven. All documents to the contrary were likely burned, all witnesses to the contrary locked up or beheaded.

I checked Al-Arabiya's website, searching for his family name in English and Arabic ( رکن‌آبادی،) and found no recent matches on English or Arabic pages (he does appear in older reports under this name. But where it matters most, in their 28 September report- which I finally found - it has the wrong name. Why? 
Saudi sources told Al Arabiya News that official records show that the name of the former Iranian ambassador to Beirut Ghazanfar Abadi does not appear among this year’s pilgrims.
If his presence during the pilgrimage is confirmed, that would mean that he has entered the country by “unknown manners,” possibly registering with a different name and description.
This might be a legitimate difference in reading his name. They have  Ghazanfar (Rukn-)Abadi vs. Ghazanfar Asl Roknabadi (Or actually Ghazanfar Mohammad Aslroknabadi as his visa says - see below). Iran is being quite open about the pseudonym of this potential ringleader. Or ... is this a glimmer of Saudi incompetence we've been hearing about?  Or was it just a fake cause to suggest he was up to no good, and claim simple error once it fell apart? Why bother? I guess its ineptitude.

Continuing with Press TV's report, which shared the visa as shown at right: Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham on Monday described the Al-Arabiya report as “incorrect” and "hasty" ... saying the ministry has documents showing that Riyadh had approved an ordinary Hajj visa for the missing diplomat.“Mr. Roknabadi set off for the Hajj pilgrimage with his ordinary passport and detailed information on the passports of all pilgrims, including his, are at the disposal of the authorities of the Saudi government,” Afkham said. Further. videos aired in Iranian media seem to show the man on Hajj in Mecca before he vanished.

Just in case it was proven he was there (and it sounds like that) he must have snuck in, KSA may be saying (not clear). They may or may not push that, may keep this reason or come up with another one. Maybe they'll see their error, check again, and find that no Ghazanfar Mohammad Aslrokn ever passed through either.

Will it Come Together?
There's still no clear sign I've found that they're going further with this, and I now suspect they won't, on their own advice or that of an ally. Bt in case they do, keep an eye on how may planks will they  with:
* 769 dead, or under 1,000 anyway / around 300 Iranians missing
* Mr. "Abadi" sneaked in and is among the unconfirmed/missing
* An Iranian group, likely his, caused the incident, through no fault of KSA

Will they expand on the implications they did it willfully, in collusion with Tehran, in ... this "act of God" ... that mainly killed Iranians? Someone may well be laying a different basis as this one crumbles, official clerics would  bless it, ... I kind of hope they miss this preview and make the prediction come true. But if they don't - this was why I suspected they were seriously thinking about doing it.


  1. One point to add by comment: I just did the match and the house of Saud has been ruling the Arabian peninsula and Mecca, and running the Hajj, since it came to power in 1744 AD/CE. Islam emerged with the first Hajj in 622 CE (or 0 AH). That means this one extended family has run these things for about 19.5% of the fairly long time Islam has existed. Isn't that crazy?

  2. NYT reports
    "Saudi Arabia has said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps orchestrated the disaster."

    I didn't find anything explaining that yet.

    Also, ambassador Roknabadi is among the small pool of 65 supposedly dead victims not yet identified (399 have been returned and IDd). He was reported alive at the hospital, but not seen since. (Farsnews) Was reportedly involved in the Syria situation, may be held hostage as Iran makes its first appearance to negotiate across from KSA on Syria's fate. (see NYT link above) He was "a key figure in Iran’s involvement in Lebanese politics and the Syrian war."

    "Saudi Arabia viewed Mr. Roknabadi as a mastermind of Iranian operations against its regional allies. He survived a bombing at his embassy and, in private, Iranian security officials say that Saudi Arabia has organized at least two other assassination attempts against Mr. Roknabadi."

  3. http://the-pessoptimist.blogspot.com/2015/10/ap-death-toll-at-last-months-hajj.html#more
    AP: death toll at last month's hajj disaster was three times higher than the Saudis admitted

    The crush and stampede that struck the hajj last month in Saudi Arabia

    killed at least 2,121 pilgrims, a new Associated Press tally showed

    Iran leads all the affected countries, saying it had 465 pilgrims killed.

    Many of the dead also came from Africa.

    Nigeria said it lost 199 people, while Mali lost 198, Cameroon lost 76,

    Niger lost 72, Senegal lost 61, and Ivory Coast and Benin both lost 52.

    Others include Egypt with 182, Bangladesh with 137, Indonesia with 126, India with 116,

    Pakistan with 102, Ethiopia with 47, Chad with 43, Morocco with 36, Algeria with 33,

    Sudan with 30, Burkina Faso with 22, Tanzania with 20, Somalia with 10, Kenya with eight,

    Ghana and Turkey with seven, Myanmar and Libya with six,

    China with four, Afghanistan with two and Jordan and Malaysia with one.

    1. Not new to me, but thanks for the added info. In fact the last AP count I saw was 2,177. I should check now - not seeing any higher numbers reported, but I've been thinking it'll top out with all but a few of the missing being dead as well, for a total of somewhere around 2,900. The more inclusive table at the Wikipedia article currently says 2,385 dead, 573 missing. And that's from nations that are counting (most of them, but there were surely some Saudi victims the kingddom won't be speaking for)


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