Hundreds Die in Panic on Baghdad Bridge
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Iraq's prime minister has declared three days of national mourning after more than 600 Shiites were killed today during a stampede in Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Shiite worshippers had gathered at a mosque to celebrate one of Shias' holiest days when rumors spread that a suicide bomber was in their midst. The panicked throng tried to escape across a bridge, forcing rails to give way. Many were crushed in the stampede; others drowned in the Tigris River. NPR's Deborah Amos is covering this story in Baghdad, and she joins me now.
And, Deb, this has to be one of the worst in a long series of deadly incidents in Iraq. What more can you tell us about what happened?
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
In a city that has relentless and daily violence, this event today has stunned Iraqis. Near the hospitals, you see people sitting, women smoking, men smoking, silent. They have tried to find their relatives; they cannot. The numbers are overwhelming. Add to the more than 600, 158 people, said the ministry of health, were killed by poisoning. This is a religious festival, where hundreds of thousands of people walk to Baghdad, and along the way they're offered sweets and tea. And some people decided in this moment in Iraq, when there is so much tension, sectarian tension, between Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds and the other ethnic groups here--somebody decided that this was the moment to take out their anger by poisoning some of these walkers.
But it was the events on the bridge--it was the panic on the bridge, where people were crushed and others jumped off the bridge into the water and drowned, mostly women and children, that has been the most shocking here.
MONTAGNE: And I gather tensions had been high, and was that because of an earlier mortar attack?
AMOS: Tensions were already high before the event started, but almost from the beginning there was a mortar attack where at least seven people were killed, and that information swept through the crowd. So when the people on the bridge heard that there was a suicide bomber in their midst, they were quite ready to believe it.
MONTAGNE: Was there a suicide bomber?
AMOS: It is still a rumor. We really don't know whether there was or there was not. There was so much security there. These Shiite festivals have been targets before. This is a Shiite-dominated government that controls the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and so there were checkpoints everywhere in the city to make sure it was safe. So it is really unclear whether there was or whether there was a provocateur in the crowd who yelled that and caused the panic.
MONTAGNE: Over 600 deaths--why so many?
AMOS: What was happening on that bridge is you came through two by two, because the police were checking people. So that meant there was a buildup behind the people and in front of the people, but it was happening on that bridge. It was just about a mile from the shrine, so that's where everybody was on their way to. So when the panic set in, there was no place to go because they were already on the bridge.
MONTAGNE: This tragedy comes at a time of a growing dispute between Shiites and Sunnis over Iraq's new draft constitution.
AMOS: That is true. On Sunday, the draft constitution was passed by Shiite and Kurdish negotiators over the head of Sunnis, who protested the constitution. And so the divisions in the country have become more stark, even since Sunday. What is interesting about this event is, as it unfolded on live television here--and everybody was watching the details, you could even see people still jumping off the bridge on live television--Sunni leaders, Shiite leaders, Kurdish leaders were calling in to the television stations. They were condemning what they saw. It is the first moment of unity that we have seen in days, and I think that all agree that this is a horrendous event, and most politics on the constitution are going to be at least--maybe not forgotten, but certainly overwhelmed by this event.
MONTAGNE: Deb, thank you very much.
AMOS: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos in Baghdad.
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