Thousands of grieving Iraqis have been searching for their loved ones as mass funerals are set to begin for the nearly
1,000 Shi’ite pilgrims killed in a deadly stampede on a Baghdad bridge on Wednesday.
At least 965 people — mostly women, children and the elderly — were crushed to death, trampled underfoot or drowned as panic swept through the
crowds sparked by rumours of suicide bombers in their midst.
It was the largest single loss of life in Iraq since the US-led invasion more than two years ago.
Another 465 were injured in the stampede which took place during a Shi’ite pilgrimage to a religious ceremony at the Kadhimiya mosque in central Baghdad, when someone shouted there was a suicide bomber among them.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has described the stampeded as “a great tragedy which will leave a scar on our souls”.
The tragedy occurred just hours after mortar strikes killed seven people at the mosque, where around three million people were massing.
“Hundreds of people started running and some threw themselves off the bridge into the river,” a witness said.
“Many elderly died immediately … but dozens drowned, many bodies are still in the river and boats are working on picking them up.”
Most victims were women and children who “died by drowning or being trampled”, an Interior Ministry official said.
It was by far the biggest loss of life in such a crowd since more than 1,400 pilgrims died at Mecca during the Hajjj in 1990.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari declared three days of mourning.
Constant coverage on national television included an appeal for relatives to claim a baby held up to the camera, found next to his mother’s body.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabor and two other top Shi’ite officials have blamed Sunni insurgents for the stampede, saying one had spread the suicide bomber rumour.
However Defence Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, said the stampede was not related to the sectarian tensions gripping the country since the US-led invasion in March 2003.
Some witnesses blamed poor organisation for the death toll.
Nevertheless, there were grounds to the fears of a bomber, after previous attacks made on Shi’ite religious events in the past two years.
The mortar attacks were claimed by a little known Sunni Muslim group.
Television images have shown people clambering down from the bridge to escape the surging crowd and piles of slippers left behind by the crush of people.
Al-Nu’man hospital is filled with corpses and relatives searching for loved ones.
The bridge stands on the spot where the body of Imam Musa al-Kadhim is said to have been dumped after being poisoned in 799 by agents of the caliph.