Hundreds of Shiites trampled to death in Iraq

September 01, 2005|By Borzou Daragahi and Edmund Sanders | Borzou Daragahi and Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Hundreds of Shiite Muslim pilgrims participating in an annual religious commemoration were crushed to death yesterday as they crossed a bridge leading to a holy site in northern Baghdad. The headlong rush apparently was triggered by fears of an insurgent attack and exacerbated by tight security restrictions.

At least 750 were killed, most of them women, children and the elderly, and the Ministry of Health said the toll could exceed 1,000.

The loss of life was the largest in any incident in Iraq since well before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and was more than four times as great as in the most deadly insurgent suicide bombing.

At least 300 Iraqis were injured in the chaos along the four-lane, quarter-mile-long, concrete-and-steel-girder bridge, which spans the Tigris River.

The victims were among the estimated million Shiites from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere who had crowded into Baghdad's Kadhemiya suburb for the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Kadhem, an eighth-century Shiite saint.

"I died over and over again," said Iraqi Army Col. Hassan Jabouri, who carried away many dead children. "It's very hard to see a baby die in front of you."

Many of the victims were from Sadr City, the vast eastern Baghdad slum where 2 million mostly poor Shiites live. As dusk settled, the streets of Sadr City turned into a vast funeral procession, with weeping men setting up mourning tents and bodies laid out in mosques to be washed in preparation for burial.

One woman arrived at the Saheb Zaman mosque in a taxi, crying and beating her face. She said she had lost her 9-month-old child in the crush and had come to search for him among the corpses.

"One family lost four members," said Fatah Sheik, an Iraqi politician from Sadr City who estimated that 600 of the dead lived in his neighborhood.

"We found a lady from Sadr City dead with her dead child lying on her chest. An old man took his two grandsons to the [Imam Kadhem] shrine [in Kadhemiya]. They came back in three boxes."

The cause of the disaster remained unclear. Several mortar rounds had fallen on the crowds earlier in the day, killing at least six and making pilgrims and the many Iraqi soldiers and police officers on the scene skittish.

Previous pilgrimages in Baghdad and shrines in Najaf and Karbala have been the targets of suicide bombings. At least 181 people were killed in coordinated blasts at Shiite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad in March last year, the deadliest such attack.

Some witnesses said the pilgrims panicked yesterday when they heard a rumor that a suicide bomber was among them.

The pilgrims were confined between high metal fences along the bridge and were unable to move backward or forward because of checkpoints in front of them and other pilgrims approaching them from behind.

Other witnesses said the panic was caused when additional mortar rounds were fired at the pilgrims.

Some victims, desperate to avoid being trampled, jumped into the muddy river and drowned, witnesses and officials said. Most victims suffocated or were trampled to death as they tried to cross the bridge or escape the two-hour morning melee.

Ali Younis Hossein, a 32-year-old laborer, described being nearly choked to death by the crowd on the Aima Bridge and pointed to a bite mark on his ankle from a victim underfoot.

"I had to step on them to get away," he said.

Pilgrims and security officials struggled to escape and to evacuate the injured and the dead. Baghdad's hospitals were overwhelmed.

After the chaos subsided, survivors gasped as they walked past mounds of colorful plastic slippers, the type worn by poor Iraqis, that lay on the bridge along with a tangle of women's black abayas and purses. Weeping women sorted through the piles, looking for the slippers of loved ones, while scavengers searched the heaps for valuables.

Iraqi officials said the disaster was probably compounded by security measures taken to prevent insurgents from crossing into Kadhemiya during the Shiite festivities.

Kadhemiya is a mostly Shiite neighborhood. Adhamiya, the neighborhood across the river, is mostly Sunni. The minority Sunnis controlled Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years and have fueled the 2 1/2 -year insurgency against U.S.-led forces and the Iraqi government.

Officials have worried that a recent rise in sectarian violence could lead to full-fledged fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, who march through the streets of Adhamiya during the Imam Kadhem commemoration. Yesterday, however, Sunnis helped evacuate injured Shiite mourners.

Gen. Rawad Rumediam, a military commander at the bridge, said that 3-foot-high concrete barriers designed to prevent car bombings probably contributed to the crush.

Saddoun Dulaymi, Iraq's defense minister, said the checkpoints at the bridge, where pedestrians are searched for explosive devices, might have slowed the flow of the crowd across the bridge and contributed to the disaster.

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