Crowd's Panic on Bridge Kills Hundreds

Some 700 Iraqis are dead following a stampede on a Baghdad bridge. Officials say most of the victims were women and children. They were taking part in a Shiite religious procession when the rumored presence of a suicide bomber prompted a panicked rush across the bridge over the Tigris.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

More than 700 people died in Iraq today. The largest loss of life on a single day in two and a half years was caused not by a bomb but by a rumor. Fears of a suicide bomber panicked a large crowd at a religious celebration and caused a stampede on a bridge in Baghdad. The Iraqi prime minister has declared three days of mourning, as Iraqis caught up in the tragedy continue to search for missing friends and relatives. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Baghdad.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The news spread through the city by cell phone. An interview with an Iraqi politician, Mithal Alusi was interrupted by an urgent call from his wife.

Mr. MITHAL ALUSI (Iraqi Politician): My wife, I think. Hello. (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Iraqi Shiites, crossing a bridge over the Tigris River on their way to a shrine in the neighborhood of Kadhamiya, panicked over rumors of a suicide bomber in their midst. Alusi couldn't believe it.

Mr. ALUSI: In Kadhamiya, we ...(unintelligible) more than 640 people, yeah, they are died. Yeah.

AMOS: The casualty figures climbed higher as the day went on. Iraqis tried to cope with the enormity of the tragedy.

(Soundbite of sirens)

AMOS: This was to be a day of prayerful celebration, one of the largest religious pilgrimages of the year, when Shiite Muslims from around the country gather at the tomb of Musa al-Kadhim, a ninth century Shiite saint. But early in the day mortar shells exploded near the shrine killing at least 16 people. Abdul Jabar Al-Ibbi(ph) says the attacks didn't stop the procession but did raise fears.

Mr. ABDUL JABAR AL-IBBI: (Through Translator) At the beginning we heard mortar shells. One was near the hospital. It was deliberate to attack the Shiites.

AMOS: With so many people moving towards the shrine, with security so tight, many were still walking over a bridge a mile away. They heard the mortar fire. Then Zedan Jabar(ph) says people around him on the bridge said there was a suicide bomber in the crowd.

Mr. ZEDAN JABAR: (Through Translator) All of the sudden there was a rush. Whoever falls gets stood on. The brave got out, but the weak fell.

AMOS: The fallen were mostly children and women. Jabar tried to grab his wife, but he lost her.

Mr. JABAR: (Through Translator) She was with me, but the wave of people took her. She fell on the ground. Then I didn't see her.

AMOS: Others jumped or were pushed into the water below. Many could not swim and died there, even as people rushed from the shore to try to save them.

The dead so overwhelmed hospitals bodies were laid out on sidewalks, where relatives searched for familiar faces--bad enough to find what they were looking for, worse to not know at all. Madeha Kavir(ph) eventually found the bodies of her mother and two other relatives, but her 15-year-old son is still missing.

Ms. MADEHA KAVIR: (Through Translator) We're looking for one now. We've lost three now--one lost and don't know anything about him.

AMOS: Iraqi politicians came to the scene in person, despite security risks. The prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, mingled with mourners. Security officials appeared on television to defend measures to protect the procession, even as others blamed the government for the mass casualties. The minister of defense, Saadoun Dulaimi said three suicide attacks had been foiled and six other people arrested in a car filled with explosives. But he also said the bridge stampede had nothing to do with current tensions between Shiites and Sunnis.

Mr. SAADOUN DULAIMI (Defense Minister, Iraq): (Through Translator) This has nothing to do with sectarian sensitivities.

AMOS: Sunni clerics and political leaders publicly sent messages of sympathy to the Shiite community. Residents of Kadhamiya, a mostly Sunni neighborhood on the western side of the bridge, rushed to aid survivors. For a day at least, the capital was united in grief. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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