In Iraq, a man-made disaster

One thousand feared dead after Shia pilgrims are caught in stampede

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Martyrdom has always been a foundation of the Shia Muslim faith. But yesterday's tragedy gave it new meaning: possibly as many as 1,000 men, women and children were killed when they fell from a bridge over the Tigris river in Baghdad, apparently fearful that a suicide bomber had been let loose among them.

There was no bomber. But there was death on a massive scale as hundreds of Shia Muslims fell over the railings of the narrow bridge. Hundreds of children were among the dead.

Bodies drifted for hours downriver from the Qadimiya district of Baghdad. Soldiers who fired their rifles into the air compounded the carnage.

Several mortar rounds had earlier exploded on the road, leading many of the marchers - commemorating the death in 799 of Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Qadim, one of Shiism's 12 principal saints - to believe they were under attack. At least a million Shia pilgrims were walking to the Qadimiya mosque when the crowd, trampled upon, crushed against barricades and hurled into the river, fell from the Aima bridge. Children could be seen drowning in the Tigris in what was the greatest loss of life in Iraq since the invasion of the country in 2003. Hundreds of sandals, foot packages and headdresses were heaped on the bridge after the deaths; hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of corpses brought to their mortuaries. At one point, Shia pilgrims could be seen hurling themselves from the bridge into the Tigris as they became crushed between panicking civilians.

Others fell from the end of the bridge and landed on the shore, their bodies crashing down amid the swings of a riverside children's park. "I saw an old woman, who was completely panicked and crying, throw herself from the bridge," Khalid Fadhil, a goldsmith who witnessed the stampede, told a reporter from The Washington Post. "I saw another man falling on the bricks of the shore who died immediately. I saw seven people were brought dead near the end of the bridge, smothered. Other people were running and shouting 'Allahu Akbar' [God is great]."

"Whoever was able to swim and knew how to swim survived. The people who didn't know died," said Sattar Jabbar, 22, a fighter in the Shia Mehdi Army militia who was on security duty. He helped pull people out of the river after jumping in himself.

The death toll was put at more than 965 dead and hundreds more injured.

In March last year, 180 people died, many of them Shia pilgrims, when they were attacked by insurgents in Baghdad and in the holy city of Karbala. Fearing more attacks, the authorities blocked off roads across northern Baghdad on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims converged on the capital. The country's Health Minister, Abdul-Mutalib Mohammed, told Iraqi television 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 panic among the pilgrims," he said, "and they started pushing each other and there were many cases of suffocation."

The security commander for the Qadimiya district, in north Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris, confirmed this analysis.

But pilgrims became frightened after mortar shells landed on the crowds in the morning, killing at least six people. A rumour started that a suicide bomber was among the crowd. Pilgrimages to the Baghdad shrine of Imam Moussa Qadim, the eighth-century Shia saint, were banned by Saddam Hussein. The revival of such pilgrimages has attracted enormous crowds over the past two years and an estimated one million pilgrims were on the road yesterday. In the aftermath of the disaster, tens of thousands of pilgrims continued their mournful procession and Shia women were seen keening over dead bodies in the streets.

The bridge where the disaster took place connects a Shia district with a part of Baghdad that supports the insurgency. The Sunni side has many former Hussein Baath party loyalists and Sunni fundamentalists. The disaster occurred just days after the new draft constitution was put before Iraq's parliament despite fierce objections by Sunni representatives. Prominent Sunnis want voters to reject the draft constitution when it is put to a referendum in October, and there have been angry protests against it among Sunnis across northern and central Iraq.

In the aftermath, Sunnis from the east side of the Tigris told how they had tried to save pilgrims who fell on to the concrete by taking the injured to a Sunni mosque and university. Others helped out with boats and, at a turn in the river, the fast-flowing current dumped bodies on the shoreline. Hospitals on both side were soon filled with bodies. The full scale of the disaster was clear at Baghdad's Medical City hospital, where heartbroken relatives and corpses filled the hallways, spilled onto the parking lot and the lawn. Arab television stations also showed bodies of men, women and children laid out on hospital floors, water streaming from their women's abayas and the black trousers and shirts of Shia pilgrims.

When hospitals could take no more victims, the bodies were laid side by side on the footpath and covered with white cloths and foil blankets. It was a scene of raw and pitiable emotion as women pulled back the covers in a desperate search for loved ones. Many survivors blamed the Shia security, rather than insurgents.Searches of men had caused bottlenecks to build up as pilgrims streamed toward the shrine. On the other side of the checkpoint another crowd built up as returning pilgrims tried to push their way home.

Shia death toll

* 31 August 2005: Worshippers stampede in Baghdad during commemoration of Shia saint's death, killing as many as 1,000 pilgrims.

* 10 March: Suicide bomber blows himself up at a Shia mosque during a funeral in Mosul, killing 47 and wounding more than 100.

* 28 February: Suicide car bomber targets mostly Shia police and National Guard recruits in Hillah, killing 125 and wounding more than 140.

* 18 February: Two suicide bombers attack two mosques, leaving 28 people dead, while an explosion near a Shia ceremony kills two others.

* 19 December 2004: Car bombs tear through Najaf funeral procession and Karbala's main bus station, killing 60 people and wounding more than 120.

* 26 August: A mortar barrage slams into a mosque near Najaf, killing 27 people and wounding 63.

* 2 March: Co-ordinated blasts from suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives strike Shia shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing 181 and wounding 573.

* 29 August 2003: A car bomb explodes outside a mosque in Najaf, killing 85 people, including Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

Source: AP

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