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Port of Entry Ar Ar prepares to open for Hajj pilgrims

US Marine Corps News

By Cpl. Meg Murray, Multi National Force - West

In the Islamic faith, all able-bodied Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once in their lifetime. This great movement is known as the Hajj, and it is the fifth pillar of Islam, set into place by the prophet Muhammad. In 2008, about 1.7 million Muslims from around the world made the journey to Mecca, and the number has been rising every year.

In Iraq, security improvements have been making this sacred journey safer for Iraqi Muslims. In southern Iraq, Port of Entry Ar Ar stands on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and is a main route for pilgrim caravans. It is opened each year during the Hajj season, and this year, Iraqi soldiers and police are working together to keep the pilgrims and their country safer than ever.

“No matter how good security is, it can always be better,” explained Iraqi Lt. Col. Khalil Meflik Hamad, the deputy commander of operations at POE Ar Ar, speaking through an interpreter. “We will be paying special attention to details like passports, vehicles … you name it.”

Border security will be especially important this year, because the Hajj falls just before the Iraqi national elections. Iraqi army and police are beefing up security not only at the port of entry, but also along the entire Hajj route through Al Anbar province. Among their plans are various checkpoints and 24-hour route security.

“We are confident all around with everyone’s joint effort to secure the roads from here to Ramadi,” said Hamad.

U.S. forces will play only a miniscule part in security for the Hajj. They will help the Iraqi soldiers at POE Ar Ar clear a parking lot for busses, move cement barriers and clear sand that has accumulated on the road. Once the POE opens for business, the U.S. military’s only role will be standing by in case they are called on for help.

Iraqi forces have been communicating with their Saudi counterparts across the border, and they expect about 8,500 pilgrims to pass through POE Ar Ar.

While the pilgrims’ vehicles are searched and their passports are checked, Hamad said the POE will be able to provide the pilgrims with water and health services. But, he stresses that above all, “security is priority.”

Soon, POE Ar Ar will be assessed to see if it is capable of remaining open year-round, not just during the Hajj. Hamad said he would be elated to see that happen, but for now, he and his fellow soldiers and police are solely focused on keeping this year’s Hajj pilgrims safe as they make their journey to Mecca.

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