MENA, Saudi Arabia, Jan 1 (Reuters) More than 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims performed final devil-stoning rites today, thanking God and Saudi Arabia for no repeat of tragedies that had marred the haj in recent years.
''Praise be to God, we have had a safe haj this year. I bring my sons with me normally (for protection), but this year I found I was okay without them,'' said Saadiya Mustafa from Egypt.
''The organisation has been great,'' said Indian pilgrim Sayed Yousef, sitting on top of a van amid severe traffic congestion on the final day of haj. ''I was here two years ago, but this time there was more free food and less hassle.'' Today, pilgrims make a third visit to the Jamarat Bridge to throw stones at three large walls representing the spot of Satan's temptation of biblical patriarch Abraham. Then they make a final visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Authorities congratulated themselves that the haj rites had passed off without incident so far, although the last day could see a surge at the bridge in the rush to finish and leave.
''There have been no security violations at all at the Jamarat area,'' Interior Minister Prince Nayef told reporters.
It was on the final day of the last haj that 362 pilgrims were crushed to death during the stoning-throwing ritual in the worst haj tragedy in 16 years. Another such incident would be a major embarrassment for Saudi Arabia in the Islamic world.
New construction work completed in recent months allows 250,000 pilgrims to pass over the Jamarat Bridge each hour. For the first time, Saudi authorities have also removed pilgrim squatters who often set up makeshift tents in the area.
Saudi Arabia regularly deploys more than 50,000 security men to try to avoid deadly stampedes, as well as attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants opposed to the US-allied Saudi royals.
The five-day rites were overshadowed by the hanging on Saturday of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a hero to some Sunni Arabs because of his anti-US stance, but hated by many Shi'ites.
Saudi Arabia criticised Iraq for despoiling the spirit of the haj, one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion which is a duty for able-bodied Muslims with the means.
It also raised fears of clashes at the haj, where police have used force to put down protests in the past.
Security was already tight during this haj season -- with apparent record numbers -- because of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Saudi officials say 2.4 million pilgrims are officially on the haj. But with hundreds of thousands of local residents sneaking into Mecca without official permits, the total number could be closer to a record 3 million.
Pilgrims, mostly on foot, cover a 44 km route around Mecca during the gruelling rites, as well as walk some 15 km in at least three visits to the city's vast mosque complex.