ANKARA, July 16 (Reuters)
Iran's top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has criticised Saudi Arabia over its management of the haj pilgrimage and called for a fresh investigation into a 2015 crush that killed hundreds, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.
The criticism comes ahead of this year's haj and amid tension between Tehran and Riyadh over proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in which the two support opposing sides.
Riyadh says nearly 800 pilgrims died when two big groups of pilgrims collided at a crossroads in Mina, a few km (miles) east of Mecca, on their way to performing the “Stoning of the Devil” ritual at Jamarat.
Counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, including more than 400 Iranians.
"A fact-finding committee, with Iran's presence, should be formed to investigate these cruelties. Relevant Iranian authorities should mobilize all legal resources to follow up the tragedy," Khamenei said in a speech to Iran's haj organisers.
"The holy lands of Mecca and Mina belong to all Muslims ... it does not belong to rulers of Saudi Arabia," said Khamenei.
The kingdom, Iran's key regional rival, presents itself as the guardian of Islamic orthodoxy and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.
Iran boycotted the haj in 2016 amid tensions with Saudi Arabia over the incident. About 90,000 Iranians attended the pilgrimage last year.
Iran also boycotted the haj for three years after 402 pilgrims, including 275 Iranians, died in clashes with Saudi security forces at an anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rally in Mecca in 1987. The so-called "deliverance from infidels" rallies are banned by the Saudi authorities.
"Haj is the best opportunity to display that religion and politics cannot be separated ... the real haj is a combination of unity and seeking deliverance from infidels," he said.
Approximately 85,000 Iranians are expected to attend the haj pilgrimage this year in Islam's holiest city Mecca.
Riyadh severed diplomatic relations in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia in January 2016.
Saudi Arabia welcomed President Donald Trump’s decision in May to withdraw the United States from the international nuclear agreement with Iran and to reimpose economic sanctions on its arch-foe Tehran.