Iraqis Call for Probe into Baghdad Bridge Deaths

Thousands of Iraqis attend funeral services for more than 900 people who died Wednesday in a panicked crush on a Baghdad bridge. The rumor of a suicide bomber sparked a mad rush during a Shiite religious festival. Amid the funerals there are calls for an investigation into the cause and accusations of a fumbled response to the disaster.

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Unidentified Man: Yes, ma'am.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

(Joined in progress) ...tending services for some of the more than 900 people killed in a stampede yesterday. The rumor of a suicide bomber sparked a panic during a Shiite religious festival. In the ensuing melee, victims were either crushed to death or drowned after falling from a bridge into the Tigris River. NPR's Deborah Amos joins me now from Baghdad.

And how are the people of Baghdad reacting to this disaster? It is the greatest one-day loss of lives since the US-led invasion.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Indeed, it is, and there's still a feeling of disbelief: How could so many people have died in one day? Iraq is in three days of national mourning. The television announcers here are wearing black. The prime minister has visited survivors in the hospital. And there are some people who are still searching for the missing at the morgues. The hardest-hit area was in a suburb known as Sadr City. It's a place where about two million mostly poor Shiites lived, and many there lost their lives on the bridge.

MONTAGNE: And a lot of women and children.

AMOS: A lot because they were the weakest and so they were crushed underfoot.

MONTAGNE: Is there any more known about exactly what happened on that bridge than I've just even described?

AMOS: Putting together the eyewitnesses' accounts, the crush of people seems due to a couple of factors. The bridge is really a four-lane road, and that was the route for pilgrims walking to the shrine. The government erected concrete barriers on that bridge. It was for security, so no car bombers could get through, but it limited the space. Then there were security checkpoints, which slowed the pedestrians, but it also caused a buildup. Even before that stampede, people were shoulder to shoulder, and as you know, there was a mortar attack on the shrine about a mile away earlier in the day and then there was an American air attack when the mortar launchers were spotted.

So some people from the shrine were moving back towards the bridge when the rumor spread on the bridge that there was an imminent suicide attack. What you had is crowds surging from two directions, so there were people on that bridge who literally suffocated standing up. The only way to survive was to have the strength to pull yourself up over the crowd so you could breathe, or you could climb up on the railings and jump into the water.

MONTAGNE: And I gather that amid these funerals, there are calls for an investigation into the cause and accusations of a fumbled response to the disaster by the government.

AMOS: Even government ministers have been doing that, and what you're seeing is political parties arguing with each other. The health minister has called for some of the security ministers to resign because there wasn't adequate security. The defense minister, who is a Sunni, said, `Yes, there was. We actually foiled three suicide attacks before the festival began and we arrested six in a car packed with explosives.' The president today called for an investigation.

But this is a country where people are frustrated with the government. They are not--this government has not been able to have adequate electricity, water, and so it adds to that tension, all these questions.

MONTAGNE: And, obviously, does it add to the sectarian tensions that's already high there?

AMOS: Not clear. The Sunni neighborhoods which were close to the tragedy--people came out in droves to help the survivors. They opened their homes. They opened their mosques. Sunni political leaders have set up a center to help some of the survivors. I think that we have to wait for a couple of days to see if this becomes a sectarian issue. Insurgents have been blamed for planting that rumor; as you know, it's a Sunni-led insurgency and Shiites say that they were the ones. But we will see.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos in Baghdad, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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