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Iraq: Three Days Of Mourning For Nearly 1,000 Stampede Victims

Pilgrims on their way to the shrine on the morning of 31 August Iraq is observing three days of mourning following Wednesday’s stampede among Shi’ite pilgrims on a bridge in Baghdad that killed nearly 1,000 people. The stampede was set off by rumors of suicide bombers in the crowd. Hundreds of people were crushed to death. Others tumbled into the Tigris River, where they drowned. Both in Iraq and abroad, the tragedy is being called the work of terrorists.

Prague, 1 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The official death toll from the stampede near a Shi’ite shrine in Baghdad on 31 August is now 965, with hundreds of others injured.

But some officials say the tally could rise higher as officials continue to count bodies, which are scattered in hospitals and morgues across the city.

Funeral tents have been erected across Baghdad’s impoverished Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City as relatives begin to bury their dead.

The government has declared three days of national mourning for what it is calling a national tragedy.

The stampede began when rumors spread through a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people visiting the Al-Kadhimiyah shrine that suicide bombers were about to attack.

The rumor had high credibility. Earlier in the morning, insurgents had fired mortar rounds into the crowd, killing some seven people. A previously unknown Sunni insurgent group later took responsibility for the mortar attacks.

Radio Free Iraq correspondent Moayed al-Haidari in Baghdad says the rumor caused masses of people near the shrine to try to rush to safety across a nearby bridge over the Tigris River.
"Families [of the dead] remained in the houses nearby until the sun set, and [dead] children were delivered to the mosque. No word can describe what has happened. It is a misfortune for all Muslims." -- local resident Mohammad al-Qaissi

But on the bridge, they were crushed against crowds of other pilgrims still trying to approach the shrine.

“Somebody said, ‘Be careful, there will be a bomb exploding now,’" al-Haidair said. "That message, like magic, caused a panic among thousands of people in just a moment. So, some of them tried to change the direction of their movement. Instead of going to Al-Kadhimiyah, they wanted to turn back. But the continuous mass of people [coming to the shrine] did not allow them to do that.”

Hundreds suffocated to death. Others jumped or tumbled off the bridge into the river and drowned.

Cross-Sectarian Aid

People from the nearby mainly Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah rushed to help the injured and pull others to safety.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowafaq al-Rubaie paid tribute to those rescue efforts as he spoke immediately after the tragedy:

"My heart goes to those who have reacted in a patriotic way, not in a sectarian way, and also the next-door neighborhood, which is a Sunni neighborhood, al-Adhamiyah," al-Rubaie said. "Their inhabitants came out to help visitors, who are mainly, or exclusively, Shi'ite visitors, and this shows the unity of these people."

Residents of nearby houses also took in people who were wandering in shock through the crowd, looking for lost family members and friends.

"Families [of the dead] remained in the houses nearby until the sun set, and [dead] children were delivered to the mosque," local resident Mohammad al-Qaissi told Reuters on 1 September. "No word can describe what has happened. It is a misfortune for all Muslims."

Forbidden Pilgrimmage

The pilgrimage to the Al-Kadhimiyah shrine had attracted Shi’ite faithful from across Shi’ite-majority southern Iraq, as well as from Baghdad’s own extensive Shi’ite neighborhoods. The shrine sits atop the ninth-century grave of Moussa Kahim, the seventh of 12 imams revered by mainstream Shi’a.

Such mass Shi’ite pilgrimages were forbidden by the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime, which suppressed the Shi’ite community.

Radio Free Iraq correspondent Al-Haidari says many of those who came to the shrine had walked for days from their home villages in the south of the country.

“I met many people coming from many provinces and cities far from Baghdad," he said. "I met some families coming by foot, not by car. They were coming by foot for two or three days from their cities, and they were walking in the day and sleeping in the night, coming to visit Al-Kadhimiyah. So, the victims are from different cities in Iraq, especially in the south.”

Interior Minister Bayan Jabor and two other top Shi’ite officials have blamed Sunni insurgents for sparking the stampede.

But Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni, said the stampede was not related to sectarian tensions.

The World Responds

The incident has been deplored by leaders around the world.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of neighboring Iran expressed deep regret for what he called a "terrorist" attack. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iraq's occupiers -- a reference to the United States -- should be held accountable.

Syria, Pakistan, Russia, and the Arab League also expressed regret and sent condolences.

The European Union and NATO said terrorists were responsible for inciting the deaths.

The U.S. State Department extended condolences to the families of the victims and pledged aid efforts.

For RFE/RL's full coverage of developments in Iraq, see "The New Iraq"