Death on a bridge

September 01, 2005

NO SUICIDE bomber was lurking on the Tigris River bridge in Baghdad yesterday, but one might as well have been. A crowd of Shiite pilgrims primed to expect the worst from disaffected Sunnis along their route panicked when a man shouted he had seen someone else strapped with explosives, and in the stampede that followed more than 700 people were crushed or drowned or fell to their deaths. It was the deadliest day in Iraq since the war there began. All it took was a rumor to set it off, but those unfortunate pilgrims were every bit as much victims of the sectarian violence in Iraq as those killed by actual bombs or bullets; without the expectation of trouble, there would have been none.

Iraq's efforts to create a new constitution have been inviting disaster for several weeks now; the document that is supposed to face ratification by the voters in October ensures sectarian and ethnic division. There could hardly have been a more effective instrument in goading those Sunni Arabs who might still be wavering into joining the ranks of the newly emboldened insurgents. If the conflict in Iraq now deepens and strengthens, like a hurricane over warm gulf waters, people may look back and say the turning point was the bridge stampede.

The day began with insurgents firing mortars at the pilgrims, killing seven. American helicopter gunships responded, and silenced the mortars. Then came reports that pilgrims were being poisoned by food and drink handed out by people on the roadside in a Sunni neighborhood, and after that came the panic on the bridge. There was nothing a helicopter gunship could do about either the poison or the panic -- emblematic, in a sense, of the way in which the conflict in Iraq has evolved so that it is now well beyond the control of the American military occupiers, and largely beyond their comprehension, as well.

Iraq now has nearly a thousand new martyrs, and it's heading for the brink.

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