- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

BAGHDAD — Nearly 1,000 Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims died yesterday in a stampede over a Baghdad bridge provoked by rumors of a suicide bomber.

The swarming crowd had been heading to a religious ceremony at the Kadhimiya mosque in the old district of north Baghdad when someone shouted there was a suicide bomber among them, a police source said.

“Hundreds of people started running and some threw themselves off the bridge into the river,” the source said.

“Many elderly died immediately … but dozens drowned; many bodies are still in the river and boats are working on picking them up.”

Most victims were women and children who “died by drowning or being trampled,” an Interior Ministry official said.

The death toll stood at 965 near midnight, Interior Ministry officials said, with 475 treated for injuries.

Jaseb Latif Ali, a general manager at the Health Ministry, said the toll was expected to top 1,000.

It was by far the biggest loss of life in such a crowd since more than 1,400 pilgrims died at Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the hajj in 1990.

In a country inured to mass bloodshed on its streets, there was profound shock and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari declared three days of mourning.

Constant coverage on national television included an appeal for relatives to claim a baby held up to the camera. He was found next to his mother’s body.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabor and two other top Shi’ite officials blamed Sunni insurgents for the stampede, saying one had spread a rumor there was a suicide bomber in the crowd.

But Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab himself, said the stampede was not related to sectarian tension gripping the country since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

“What happened has nothing at all to do with any sectarian tension,” he said on television.

Mr. al-Jaafari dismissed calls for ministers to resign over the accident.

Whatever sparked the rush for safety, the fear that a bomber might be on the loose was well grounded after previous attacks on Shi’ite religious events in the past two years.

Three separate mortar and rocket attacks on the crowd heading to the mosque to commemorate the martyrdom of Musa al-Kadhim had killed seven persons before the stampede. They were claimed by a little-known Sunni Muslim group.

Television images showed people clambering down from the bridge to escape the surging crowd and piles of slippers left behind by the crush of people.

Hysterical women knelt over corpses, wailing and praying.

Ambulances rushed to the scene and people hoisted bodies onto stretchers while others lined the river banks and crowded the bridge.

Scores of bodies were covered with whatever was around — foil, clothes or plastic sheeting.

A woman wept over the body of her dead child in al-Nu’man hospital. Dozens of bodies were strewn across the floor.

The bridge stands on the spot where the body of Imam Musa al-Kadhim is said to have been dumped after being poisoned in 799 by agents of the caliph.

About 250,000 pilgrims had traveled from other parts of Iraq for the events, organizers said.

The figure was lower than normal, they said, because of security fears.

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