ISLAMABAD -- This year's hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, turned out to be much more than the immense assembly of the world's Muslims that it normally is. Every year, nearly 2 million Muslims from more than 120 countries gather to perform this rite. The pilgrimage this year was marred by death and violence unprecedented in Mecca's recent history.

The trouble started following the Iranian pilgrims' demonstration scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Friday, July 31. This demonstration, an annual fixture in Mecca since 1983, was the subject of intense prior negotiations between the Saudis and the Iranians.

During the predemonstration parleys, the Saudi side was represented by Hajj Minister Abdul Wasie and his deputy, Hesham Khashoggi, and the Iranians by Ayatollah Mehdi Karubi, his deputy Jehangiri and Dr. Mohammad Ali Hadi, a member of parliament.

Initially, the Saudis expressed their reservations and urged the Iranians to desist from their plans to hold the demonstration. The Saudi plea rested on the argument that the holy pilgrimage was meant entirely for the performance of religious rites and any political rally would detract from this goal. Further, they felt a demonstration on such a large scale might adversely affect their security arrangements.

The Iranians retorted that religion and politics are indivisible in Islam and such a demonstration would generate awareness among Muslims of their problems, most of which are political. They also argued that, since past demonstrations had been peaceful, there was no reason to presume this one would be otherwise.

According to Jehangiri, the Saudis gave their "general consent" to the demonstration -- a sort of "you can go ahead although we do not agree with it" clearance. He added that there was "general agreement" between the Saudis and the Iranians on "the modalities of the demonstration": the route, including clear demarcation of the starting point and point of termination, the timing, the procession, the content of slogans and banners. The Iranians said they would ensure implementation of these "modalities." One new feature of this year's demonstration was to be the burning of American flags.

It was agreed that the demonstration would begin at 4:30 p.m., end at 6:30 p.m. and then the demonstrators would move in a procession terminating at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications Building, which is approximately 1.5 kilometers from the Holy Mosque. The Iranians expected to end the whole show by sundown -- 7:15 p.m. Mecca time.

Two days before, the Iranians had announced the ground rules of their rally, including slogans to be chanted, and these were distributed to pilgrims through the daily "khabarnama" (news bulletin in Persian) with a copy to the Saudis. The three sanctioned slogans were "Death to America," "Death to Russia" and "Death to Israel" -- in that order. Khashoggi and Jehangiri walked the entire route of the demonstration the day before.

But on the eve of the planned demonstration, Khashoggi came to the Iranians with a list of three conditions. All three were rejected by the Iranians. First, the Iranians should restrict the number of its demonstrators. The Iranians said the size of the demonstration would be the same as last year's approximately 100,000. Second, no foreign pilgrims should be allowed to participate. Third, there should be no attempt at involvement of or participation by any Saudi citizens.

As it turned out, the demonstration had some 500 foreign pilgrims participating, including the leaders of Lebanon's Hezbollah (Party of God), Afghan mujaheddin, representatives of the Moro National Liberation Front (the Philippine Muslim minority) and two cousins of the Sudanese Prime Minister. There was an assortment of Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis.

Soon after the Friday prayer at 1:30 p.m., the Saudi security forces started gathering strength around the area of the demonstration; many of them came in armored cars and others wore riot gear -- white steel helmets and sticks the size of baseball bats. The Saudis had placed seven videocameras at adjoining buildings to monitor the demonstration, and helicopters were hovering constantly.

The demonstrators gathered in front of the 11-story building that housed the headquarters of Iran's official hajj mission. This building is just opposite the headquarters of the Mecca municipality in an area known as "Maabda" on a boulevard called Masjid al Haram Street (the Holy Mosque Street).

The meeting began promptly at 4:30 p.m. with recitation from the Koran. This was followed by chanting of slogans by Engineer Mortazaifar, popularly known in Iran as "minister for slogans." The Islamic equivalent of an American football cheerleader, he led the crowd in rhythmic chanting of slogans about the "three satans" (America, Russia and Israel) and the three Muslim causes of Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The principal speech was given by Ayatollah Karubi, official representative of Ayatollah Khomeini.

At 6:30 p.m., after three American flags were burned, the demonstrators started moving on the wide, two-way boulevard, which has three lanes on either side. On one side, the demonstration was led by women clad in their traditional black chadors; on the other side, parallel to them, war invalids in wheel-chairs were in the vanguard. All along the one-kilometer route there were Iranian men on both sides with hands clasped. In the middle were loudspeakers with wires running all along the route.

The demonstration was orchestrated from the headquarters where the "minister for slogans" continued to mobilize the crowd. Around 6:45 p.m., he said: "Please listen carefully for an important announcement." Then he said in a dramatic tone: "With divine assistance an American helicopter has crashed in the Persian Gulf. Allahu akbar. God is great." (The BBC had announced this news in its bulletin that morning.)

Ten minutes later, when the vanguard of the procession was some 500 meters away from the stipulated termination point, the marchers were stopped by a police cordon. Riot police formed a line that ran from the well-known "Masjid Jinn" (the Mosque of Jinn) to the demonstrators' right to a four-story parking facility to their left. This is just before a large square that leads to the Holy Mosque a mile away.

The Iranians wanted to move forward, and the Saudi security, with equal vehemence, told them to move back. Hot words were exchanged, tempers flared and scuffles followed. Simultaneously, and almost mysteriously, stones and bricks started being thrown on the demonstrators from the second and third stories of the four-story parking facility. Some Iranians later speculated that those throwing stones from the parking lot may have been Iraqi agents provocateurs, planted there in advance.

Initially, the Saudi police retreated from the brick-batting, and the Iranians converted their banners into sticks to beat the Saudis. Then Saudi reinforcements came with tear-gas shells, and the crowd started retreating. But the exit points were choked by the Saudi security, with the result that the demonstrators were either in the open on the main street or seeking refuge in buildings along the way.

Although I myself did not actually see Saudi police firing on the Iranians, when people were running for cover gun shots could be heard loud and clear. The whole thing was over in an hour. People were being carried away with bullet wounds in the chest, arms and thighs. Empty cartridges were found on the main street.

Casualties were exceedingly high for a riot of such a short duration. The Saudis put the toll at 275 Iranians, 86 of their people and 42 other foreigners. The Iranians put their death toll at more than 400, with 4,000 wounded, and another 50 said to be missing but presumed dead.

The riot was over around 8 p.m. An hour later, I walked along part of Masjid al Haram Street to the point where the rioting had begun. Just in front of some shops near Masjid Jinn I counted 20 bodies of Iranian women, most still clad in chadors stained with blood. They were being quickly carried away in vans and trucks. The road was being cleared of rubble -- torn banners, parts of clothing, shoes, plus rubber bullets three inches in length and one inch in diameter. The Saudis were quick to clear the mess, and by midnight the scene of the incident presented an air of normalcy.

One reason for the high number of fatalities was that the wounded bled to death because medical assistance was not rendered on time. Unable to cope with so many casualties, authorities summoned a number of Pakistani doctors from Medina and Jeddah.

Iranians in Mecca admitted that "we were caught unawares." In an exclusive interview at his Mecca headquarters two days afterward, Ayatollah Karubi seemed shaken and worried. Squatting below a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, he spoke for an hour of the events that had produced the biggest death toll of Iranian civilians since the revolution in 1979.

Karubi accused the Saudis of "a massacre in front of the house of God, although everything was decided before the demonstration. We have always believed that hajj is an occasion for political discussions apart from going through the rituals." He seemed surprised at the turn of events, given the predemonstration agreements.

Karubi said he was not too sure whether it was panicky police reaction that led to so many deaths or whether it was preplanned: "This kind of confrontation was new for us too. We are working on different possibilities. One could be that the Saudis, seeing that these demonstrations were gathering momentum, felt threatened -- more so because other Muslim pilgrims were keen to cooperate with us. The Saudis knew it and resented this fact. For example, at the demonstration in Medina, which we held before the one at Mecca on July 31, 50 percent of the participants were foreigners.

"The other possibility which comes to our mind is that these could be preparations at American instigation to retaliate for U.S. failures in the Persian Gulf. By these acts they think they might be able to change the situation."

As for any retaliation from Iran, Karubi emphasized that "our people are very angry and these crimes will not go unanswered. Inshallah {God willing}, next year we will have a better demonstration."

The Mecca episode apart, at the core of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia lie fundamentally divergent philosophical views of Islam. Khomeini's version sees no divorce of Islam and its rituals from politics and political action. Indeed, Islam, in this view, is a continuous struggle against evil, be it atheism, the superpowers or monarchies such as the shah's or the House of Saud. Conversely, the Saudis, in a more traditional, somewhat conservative view, see Islam mainly as the manifestation of personal piety and observance of rituals -- and without political action.

While the Saudis should be faulted for excessive use of force against unarmed demonstrators, the Iranians too made mistakes in reading the mood of other pilgrims and of the Saudi authorities. The demonstration, otherwise superbly organized, was marked by an absence of leadership at a crucial point in the confrontation with Saudi security. When the crowd was stopped, there was no one to guide the Iranian pilgrims, since their leaders were not in front. Given rising tensions in the region and Saudi sensitivity to the demonstration, the Iranian leaders at the very least should have anticipated the possibility of trouble.

The Iranians erroneously assumed other Muslim pilgrims have the same high degree of militancy and political activism. But most pilgrims, old men and women, are apolitical people who come to Mecca on a once-in-a-lifetime journey with meager subsistence and savings. The result was that, through a mixture of distortion and confusion, the Iranians drew little sympathy from fellow pilgrims on the scene, and later they were somewhat isolated, since the Saudis succeeded to some extent in portraying them as "troublemakers."

The Iranians also underestimated Saudi capacity and resolve to act with ruthlessness. It now seems Saudi ire was building up, and there was seething anger at the recurrent demonstrations. The Saudis were definitely in a mood to "teach these Iranians a lesson." On the other hand, the Iranians were overconfident and felt "nobody can touch us."

Following the Mecca violence, the Saudis quickly managed to score propaganda points. The relative isolation of Mecca (no Western journalist is allowed in) and the fact that the riot took place during the peak of the pilgrimage helped Saudis to doctor the facts. They released their own casualty figures and produced a documentary that was crudely one-sided in its display of violence.

The biggest blow was psychological. The Saudis managed to dent the mystique of invincibility that has developed around the Islamic revolution in recent years. For all their gloating over their "success" in browbeating the Iranians in Mecca, the Saudis were quite jittery over possible Iranian retaliation. They posted guards with automatic rifles within the precincts of the Holy Mosque.

What happened in Mecca on that fateful Friday afternoon underlines the growing conflict between two approaches to Islam: one favoring the status quo, the other aimed at fostering revolutionary change. If anything, the future in the Islamic world promises an accentuation of this conflict.