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Baghdad Bridge Stampede Kills 965

At least 965 Iraqis were crushed to death or drowned in a stampede on a Baghdad bridge yesterday as vast crowds of Shiite pilgrims were sent into panic by rumors of suicide bombers in their midst.


In Iraq's deadliest day since the US-led war of March 2003, hundreds of women, children and elderly people were trampled underfoot or jumped to their deaths from the bridge after a deadly mortar strike on a Shiite shrine.


Iraq authorities said the tragedy -- which risks inflaming sectarian tensions in the country -- was a "terrorist" act by toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's loyalists and al-Qaeda frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.


A security official said 965 were killed and 465 injured in the crush of pilgrims who converged on the Kadhimiya Mosque in northern Baghdad for a ceremony mourning the death of a revered Shiite imam.


"We are expecting more drowned corpses to surface," he said.


Most were trampled to death or fell from al-Aaimmah Bridge into the Tigris River as panic gripped thousands of pilgrims among the several million attempting to make their way to the mosque.


"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 Iraqia television.


The stampede occurred after the Kadhimiya Mosque -- the burial place of Shiite imam Mussa Kazim who died 12 centuries ago -- came under mortar fire, leaving at least seven dead and 37 wounded.


The incident could further stoke tensions between the country's Shiite majority and the ousted Sunni elite that has provided the backbone to the raging insurgency, only days after divisions were revived over the writing of the country's post-Saddam constitution.


A carpet of shoes belonging to the victims littered the bridge where waist-high concrete barriers designed to foil car bombers were stained with the blood of victims who had been crushed against them.


"It was Saddamists and Zarqawists who spread rumors on the bridge and that is why people panicked," national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told the television.


People injured lined the corridors of Baghdad's hospitals as they struggled to cope with the enormity of the disaster.


"The crowd started to panic and women and children were being trampled underfoot," said Abdul Walid, 54, lying dazed on a hospital floor. "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."


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 US 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.


Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a member of the majority Shiite community, 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."


The tragedy provoked an international outcry with messages of sympathy flowing in from the UN, the US, the EU and the Arab League.


Neighboring Shiite Iran offered its condolences but warned that "suspicious hands are involved in conspiracies to incite violence and bloodshed among the different Iraqi groups and tribes."


Iraqi Health Minister Abdul Mutalib Mohammad Ali demanded the resignation of the interior and defense ministers whom he blamed for the tragedy.


Shiites, long repressed under Saddam, have been one of the main targets of the Sunni-led insurgency. In March last year more than 170 people were killed in almost simultaneous attacks in Karbala and Baghdad mosques as faithful Shiites marked a religious festival.


Wednesday's tragedy came amid deep divisions in the country over Iraq's draft constitution, which is opposed by disgruntled Sunni Arabs who are now seeking alliances to defeat the charter in an October 15 referendum.


"Even if it wasn't directly caused by Sunni insurgents, the perception will be that it was," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, an organization working to resolve conflicts.


"In the current environment people will see things in a sectarian light ... and it may well lead to further expansion of growing sectarian animosities."


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 spokesperson in the southern holy city of Najaf.


US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hinted that the draft constitution, presented to parliament on Sunday after weeks of tortuous negotiations that failed to bring the Sunnis on board, was still an incomplete document.


The Sunni leaders, who are mobilizing the community to strike alliances across the sectarian divide, said they were opening talks with other ethnic and religious groups including radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement.


(Chinadaily.com.cn via agencies, September 1, 2005)


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