'More than 600' killed in Baghdad bridge stampede

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About 640 worshippers are feared dead after a railing collapsed in a stampede as a religious procession crossed a bridge in Baghdad today.

One survivor said panic ensued when people heard that a suicide bomber was in the crowd. Tension was running high because of an earlier mortar attack near the shrine where the marchers were heading.

A railing collapsed on the bridge, sending hundreds tumbling into the Tigris River on the bridge to the Shi'ite Kazamiyah district.

After the disaster, thousands of people rushed to both banks of the river searching for survivors. Hundreds of men waded into the muddy water trying to extract bodies floating in the water.

The Deputy Interior Minister, Hussein Ali Kamal, said the death toll stood at about 640. Hundreds more are thought to have been injured. Victims were transported to various hospitals and officials were scrambling to compile an accurate count.

"We were on the bridge. It was so crowded. Thousands of people were surrounding me," said survivor Fadhel Ali, 28, as he stood bare footed and soaking wet after swimming from the river. "We heard that a suicide attacker was among the crowd. Everybody was yelling so I jumped from the bridge into the river, swam and reached the bank. I saw women, children and old men falling after me into the water."

The Health Minister Abdul-Mutalib Mohammed said that there were "huge crowds on the bridge and the disaster happened when someone shouted that there is a suicide bomber on the bridge. This led to a state of panic among the pilgrims and they started to push each other and there were many cases of suffocation."

Two hours earlier, a mortar and rocket attack killed at least seven people and injured at least 40 near the Imam Mousa al-Kadim shrine, about a mile from the bridge. US Apache helicopters fired on the attackers, a US statement said.

Meanwhile, at least six people were reported to have died after drinking poisoned juice and food they received around the mosque, D. Muhannad Jawad of the Yarmouk hospital said.

Television reports said about one million pilgrims from Baghdad and outlying provinces had gathered near the Imam Mousa al-Kadim shrine in the Kazimiyah district for the annual commemoration of the Shi'ite saint's death.