Iraq buries its dead but recriminations from the stampede have barely begun

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The Independent Online

Families of the hundreds of people who died in Wednesday's catastrophic stampede in Baghdad have begun burying their dead amid bitter recriminations over the failure of the government to prevent the tragedy.

A protest march towards the bridge over the Tigris, where the stampede started, ended in more panic and injuries when guarding soldiers began firing in the air.

The latest death toll from the tragedy, which occurred when Shia pilgrims, making their way to Bagdadh's Qadimiya mosque to commemorate the death of 8th century imam, Moussa ibn Jafaar al-Qadim, were panicked by rumours of suicide bombers and stampeded, is 965 drowned or trampled to death.

However, many of the 465 injured are not expected to survive and the death toll is expected to rise further when dead and injured who were taken away by their families are counted.

The Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Qadimiya hospital in Baghdad, which was filled to overflowing with the wounded, as the government announced three days of mourning and a comprehensive investigation.

Jalal Talabani, Iraq's Kurdish President, said: "The government should take measures for an honest investigation to determine how failures doubled the doubled the casualties."

There were immediate divisions within the government over the killings. The Health minister, Abdul Mutalib Mohammed Ali, called for the defence and interior ministers to resign, declaring that they had failed to protect the worshippers.

Bayan Jabor, the Interior Minister, and Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the Defence Minister, denied responsibility and then argued over who was actually to blame.

Mr Jabor, a Shia, maintained that Sunni insurgents had caused the deaths by spreading the rumours of suicide bombers which started the panic. But speaking at the same press conference, Mr Dulaimi - a Sunni - denied that the deaths were Sunni inspired and claimed his suggestions that the bridge should be closed were ignored. "There had to be a search operation at the end of the bridge," he said. "So crowds gathered and a certain scream caused chaos in the crowd and the crowd just reacted and this sorrowful incident took place."

Many among the thousands who gathered for the funerals of the fallen accused the authorities of providing grossly inadequate protection for more than a million pilgrims who had gathered for one of the most important Shia religious events of the year.

Panic set in after the vast crowd, made uneasy by barrages of mortar and rocket attacks earlier, heard rumours of suicide bombers in their midst. Some were trampled to death as they scrambled to cross the al-Aima Bridge while others either flung themselves into the Tigris, or were pushed over the parapets.

Baha al-Aaraji, a leading Shia politician affiliated to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said: " This is a result of the inadequate performance of the interior and defence ministers which has caused such a loss of life. They should stand in front of the national assembly and be questioned. If it is proven that they have failed to fulfil their responsibilities, they should be dismissed and stand trial."

As mourning tents were being put up at Sadr City, a sprawling Shia slum on the edge of Baghdad, with bodies laid out in makeshift shrouds, the grief of bereaved families turned to anger. " Why did they die? Why did they suffer like this?" Rashida Ibrahim, who lost her 59-year-old mother, demanded. "They had police, soldiers there, but they did nothing to stop this happening. They are guilty for this."

The anger over the deaths adds to the stresses on Iraq's political process following the rejection of the new constitution by Sunni parties.

Speaking on national television, Mr Jaafari urged Iraqis " to be patient with the current circumstances" and called on the Shia, Sunni and Christian communities "to think about the benefit of Iraq".

He said: "We heard the news that some of those enemies attacked innocent people with mortars killing our faithful sons. This attack caused chaos among the Iraqi people in other areas in Baghdad and then because of the technical defects of the bridge, many people were martyred."

There were more deaths in Baghdad when Iraq executed three prisoners - the first time the death penalty has been carried out since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The United Nations and international human rights groups had urged the Iraqi government not to carry out the sentences.

The three men had been convicted by a court in the Shia city of Kut last month of killing three policmen as well as separate counts of kidnap and rape.

* Research by two American anti-war groups has found that the Iraq conflict is costing the US more than the Vietnam War. The Institute for Policy Studies and Foreign Policy in Focus estimates the cost of military operations in Iraq is $500m (£278m) a month more than in Vietnam.

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