Hundreds Trampled to Death in Baghdad Pilgrimage

More than 600 Iraqis are confirmed dead and hundreds others injured after a stampede in Baghdad on Wednesday — the deadliest single event since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The stampede occurred after a mortar attack, plus a rumor of a suicide bomber in their midst, spread panic among a crowd of Shiite Muslim pilgrims crossing a bridge. Alex Chadwick gets an update from Christian Science Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy, reporting from Baghdad.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Through this hour, we'll continue to bring you news about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

There is another big story now, though, and it is not good news. In Baghdad today, more than 600 people died in a stampede during a religious festival. The crush began after someone yelled they'd seen a suicide bomber heading for the crowd. Dan Murphy is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He's based in Baghdad.

Dan, tell us more what happened.

Mr. DAN MURPHY (The Christian Science Monitor): Well, the death toll's moving all the time, but I think now they're confirming at least 841 people killed. And health officials here are saying they expect that to rise to around a thousand.

Today was the celebration of the death of Imam Al-Khadim, who's one of the 12 imams that Shiites venerate. As many as a million people were making it into this area on foot. Some of them were coming from days away from towns in the deep south of Iraq. And the bridge that these people were coming across acted as a bottleneck. Apparently, there was a checkpoint at the shrine end of the bridge where people were being checked for suicide belts because of course many Shiite holidays have been hit by insurgents in Iraq in the past few years, and that bottleneck was coupled, as you said, perhaps by somebody shouting that there was a suicide bomber there. Very quickly there was panic; there was a crush of people trying to get onto the bridge that probably didn't even, you know, know the panic had started. And the people that were on the bridge were caught between two walls of folks. And again, most of the dead are women and children who were either crushed to death on the bridge or jumped into the river about 50 feet below and drowned. You know, just a horrific, horrific day here.

CHADWICK: Well, it sounds horrific. I wonder, given that this is a important religious event for the Shias and there's this concern about a suicide bomber, there was no actual suicide bomber there, just a panic about one. But I wonder if this is not going to significantly worsen the already deteriorating relations between the Shia and the Sunnis.

Mr. MURPHY: It could. It's hard to know how this will play out. And it's also hard to know if the relations can get a lot worse at the moment. This is a country that is riven with sectarian tension and distrust. Earlier in the morning--this incident happened at around 10 AM local time--at about 8:00, mortars and Katyusha rockets slammed into crowded areas with pilgrims, killing about 15 of them. There were also many rumors floating around that insurgents had poisoned the free food and water at some places that are typically given out in these types of Shiite holidays. And so as you point out, there was no suicide bomber there and this was a case of panic overtaking people, the context of the violence and the tension that surrounds people all the time. In the past history, there was horrific suicide bombing about a year and a half ago in this same neighborhood on a shrine day that killed, I think it was, at least 50 people. This is in the back of everyone's mind and is a big part of the reason this happened.

CHADWICK: The context of the fear in Baghdad must be just overwhelming if you can have this kind of situation where, if the projections are correct, a thousand people die in a panic stampede.

Mr. MURPHY: I think the levels of fear in Baghdad are, you know, if there was a measure for it, they'd be off the charts. However, to be fair, if you have crowds of people moving in areas that aren't built to accommodate them with poor crowd controls we had today, these things can happen. But there is no question that particularly in Baghdad, which is of course one of the most ethnically and religiously mixed cities in the country, which makes it one of the most violent and dangerous parts of Iraq, that there are, you know, assassination squads, there are sectarian killings every day, there are bombings frequently, and all of this is at the forefront of people's minds all the time.

CHADWICK: Dan Murphy with The Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad.

Dan, thank you.

Mr. MURPHY: My pleasure, Alex.

CHADWICK: Again, our top story is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region. President Bush flew back to Washington today to coordinate the federal response to the disaster. He's expected to visit the region later this week. Our NPR correspondents in the field continue to report on the rescue and recovery efforts. We'll hear more from them throughout the program, and you can find their latest dispatches and more information on the disaster at our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more coming on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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