Rain, flu fears join pilgrimage

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Muslim pilgrims circled Islam's holiest site Wednesday in their traditional white robes, with a few additions — umbrellas and face masks — as the opening of the annual hajj was complicated by torrential rains and fears of swine flu.

Saudi authorities have been planning ways for months to inhibit the spread of swine flu during the pilgrimage, which is seen as an incubator for the virus. The four-day event is one of the most crowded in the world, with more than 3 million people from every corner of the globe packed shoulder to shoulder in prayers and rites.

Now they are scrambling to deal with sudden, unexpected downpours that could worsen one of the gathering's perennial dangers: deadly stampedes.

In 2006, all it took was a dropped piece of luggage to trip up a crowd and cause a pileup that killed more than 360 people at one of the holy sites. The rains also could cause flash floods or mudslides in the desert mountains where most of the rites take place.

On Wednesday, the only fallout from the rains was epic traffic jams, flooded tents and washed-out streets as the faithful tried to make their way to the Kaaba in Mecca. To kick off the hajj, Muslims circle seven times around the cube-shaped shrine draped in black cloth.

At times, crowds of men and women under umbrellas, some wearing surgical masks against the flu, circled in the courtyard of the mosque surrounding the shrine. But at other times during the day, the site was nearly empty, as were the surrounding streets, which would typically be jammed on the hajj's opening day.

Many travelers were struggling just to get to the site. Floods closed part of the main road to Mecca from the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah — the entry point into the country for most of the faithful. As a result, cars were backed up as far as 20 miles, nearly half the highway's length.