|Iraq : A Nation in Agony
|My son was on my shoulders, I don't know where he is now - everybody was suffocating to death so I eventually had to jump
Trampled, crushed against barricades or plunging into the Tigris River, up to 800 Shiite pilgrims died when a procession across a Baghdad bridge in broiling midday heat was engulfed in panic over rumors that a suicide bomber was at large.
The swarming crowds had been heading to a religious ceremony at the Kadhemiyya Mosque in the old district of north Baghdad when someone shouted there was a suicide bomber among them, a police source said. The stampede also occurred after the Kadhemiyya Mosque came under mortar fire, leaving at least seven dead and 37 wounded.
Reflecting the confusion, casualty figures from various government agencies also varied widely. The Health Ministry said 769 people were killed and 307, the Interior Ministry's put the figure at 844 dead and 458 injured. The country's biggest Shiite party gave figures of 759 dead and 300 wounded. It was the single biggest confirmed loss of life in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
"The terrorist pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives ... and that led to the panic," Interior Minister Bayan Baker Solagh told state-owned Iraqiyya television.
"Hundreds of people started running and some threw themselves off the bridge into the river," a police source said.
"Many elderly died immediately as a result of the stampede but dozens drowned, many bodies are still in the river and boats are working on picking them up."
The two-lane bridge was littered with hundreds of sandals lost in the pushing and panic, while children floundered in the muddy waters below, trying to reach dry land.
Iraq's revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for unity. "He (Sistani) calls on all Iraqis to have unity and close ranks, to give no chance to those who want to provoke discord," said Hamid Khaffaf, Sistani's spokesman in the southern holy city of Najaf.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari declared a three-day mourning period and went on television to appeal for national unity. He described it as a "terrorist attack not separate from terrorist attacks in the past."
President Jalal Talabani said it was "a great tragedy which will leave a scar on our souls".
The country's largest Shiite political party blamed the deaths on "fundamentalists, pro-Saddam elements and terrorists and those who collaborate with them."
Television reports said about one million pilgrims from Baghdad and outlying provinces had gathered near the shrine to commemorate the death in the year 799 of Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhem, one of the 12 principle Shiite saints .
"We heard that a suicide attacker was among the crowd," said Fadhel Ali, 28, barefoot and soaking wet. "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."
Scores of bodies covered with white sheets lay on the sidewalk outside one hospital under the broiling sun because the morgue was jammed. Many of them were women in black gowns, as well as children and old men.
Sobbing relatives wandered amid the dead, lifting the sheets to try to identify their kin. When they found them, they would shriek in grief, pound their chests or collapse to the ground, sobbing.
Dr. Hamid Jassim, the head of a medical team accompanying the pilgrims, said some people did go off the bridge at the start of the stampede, but the crowds soon started pressing in both directions, and "most of the casualties either died from suffocation or from being trampled."
"Many of the panicked people who jumped into the Tigris trying to save themselves survived with broken bones. Others drowned because they did not know how to swim," he said.
Doctors and orderlies were treating many of the injured on the floor or on trolleys in corridors. A child lay unconscious on a stretcher, with an intravenous drip dangling from her arm.
Defense Minister Saadoun al-Doulaimi said the procession had jammed up at a security checkpoint on the western end of the bridge, which was closed months ago to prevent movement by extremists between the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhemiyya to the Sunni district of Azamiyya across the river.
An Al-Qaeda linked group calling itself the Jaiech Al-Taifa al-Mansoura (Army of the Victorious Community) claimed it carried out the attack on the mosque to "punish the genocides committed against Sunnis." The U.S. military said its helicopters had fired on the rebels who carried out the mortar attack and Iraqi officials said seven of them were killed.
Officials said 25 people died of poisoning after eating or drinking products that had been deliberately contaminated.
The Daily Star