The United States has long been criticized in the Arab world for barring flights from Iraq for the Hajj, an annual religious pilgrimage that draws Muslims from around the world to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
In recent weeks, however, the Clinton administration agreed to the British draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would exempt such flights from the sanctions on Iraq. And the United States went a step further, agreeing to permit year-round flights to ferry "sick and infirm" Iraqis to Mecca for a more routine religious journey known as the Omrah.
But that second concession has provoked opposition from Persian Gulf states. Last week, Bahrain, the only gulf state represented on the Security Council, successfully pushed for the Omrah exemption to be struck from the resolution, which could come to a vote this week.
Western diplomats said Bahrain was acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia, which is concerned that its security would be undermined by unlimited numbers of Iraqi visitors. The Saudis also worry that other countries under U.N. sanctions, such as Afghanistan, might be given a similar deal, allowing enemies of the state, such as followers of exiled Saudi militant Osama bin Laden, into the country.
"The Saudis want to create some boundaries so that they don't have to let in people from any pariah state who want to do a pilgrimage," a senior U.S. official said.
The Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam. At least once in a lifetime, each devout Muslim is duty-bound to make a pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Ramadan.
As custodian of the Islamic world's holiest site, Saudi Arabia is obliged to welcome all Muslims. Diplomats said the Saudis agreed to allow Iraqis to participate in the Hajj but refused to make any additional exemptions. "The Saudis said the Hajj was enough, it is not necessary to provide any exceptions for the Omrah," said a Western diplomat. "Politics prevailed over religion."
While the Omrah carries less religious significance, the effort to eliminate the exemption is likely to embarrass Bahrain and possibly Saudi Arabia, according to Middle East experts.
"It may have been a tactical error to include the Omrah in the resolution," said Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League ambassador to the United Nations. "But taking it out is a tactical mistake."
The Bahraini and Saudi legations at the United Nations, and the Saudi Embassy in Washington, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The proposal to create an exception for the Omrah was made by France and was later supported by Malaysia and China. Paris proposed exempting all religious activities from the U.N. travel ban.
"The French made a big song and dance out it; they were playing to the gallery," said one diplomat. "I don't think the French consulted those most interested--Iraq's neighbors."
British and U.S. officials, meanwhile, say the U.N. ban on religious travel has been greatly misunderstood. One diplomat said the United Nations has offered in the past to allow Iraq to operate flights out of Baghdad to Saudi Arabia, but only if the world body can ensure that the Iraqi regime does not profit from it.
"The flights were not a problem," said one diplomat. "But each pilgrim needs a certain amount of money to buy gifts and travel. We wanted to make arrangements for the money to pass directly to the pilgrims, because we suspected the regime would put money in its own till."