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    MOSCOW, January 15, 2004. (RIA Novosti) - This year's hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, is starting January 28 to last into February 14, and will involve 5,500 Russian Muslims, says Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as it expressly calls pilgrims to bypass Iraq. The Iraqi route appears the most dangerous of all, the ministry says on its official website. It is offering transits via Turkey, Syria and Jordan for safety's sake.

    Iraqi instability, draconian laws, and utter absence of human rights-related legal norms and guarantees give local rulers ample chances to use even the slightest misdemeanours for their own ends, warns the ministry.

    Customs and police officers, and other Iraqi authorities often provoke pilgrims from Russia to underhand commercial deals. They do not provide timely information about detained Russian nationals to the Russian Embassy even after its repeated demands on that score.

    Information about Russian citizens arrested in Iraq for economic crimes shows well-knit arrangements to extort money from pilgrims, using their ignorance of local laws.

    To give up the Iraqi route and whatever deals in Iraq is the only way for Russian pilgrims to avoid related problems, stresses the ministry.

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