| A man carries a girl who died in the stampede. (Reuters)
Baghdad, Aug. 31 (Reuters): More than 800 Iraqi Shias died in a stampede over a Baghdad bridge provoked by rumours of a suicide bomber today, and an official said the death toll was expected to reach 1,000.
The swarming crowds had been heading to a religious ceremony at the Kadhimiya mosque in the old district of north Baghdad when someone shouted there was a suicide bomber among them, a police source said.
“Hundreds of people started running and some threw themselves off the bridge into the river,” the source 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.
“At 10:30 pm the confirmed death toll is 852 and it is still rising,” said Jaseb Latif Ali, a general manager at the health ministry.
It was by far the biggest loss of life in such a crowd since more than 1,400 pilgrims died at Mecca during the Haj in 1990.
In a country inured to mass bloodshed on its streets, there was profound shock and Prime Minister Jalal Talabani declared three days of mourning. Constant coverage on national television included an appeal for relatives to claim a baby held up to the camera. He was found next to his mother’s body.
| A woman mourns a relative at a hospital. (AFP)
Interior minister Bayan Jabor and two other top Shia officials blamed Sunni insurgents for the stampede, saying one had spread a rumour there was a suicide bomber in the crowd.
But defence minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab himself, said the stampede was not related to sectarian tensions gripping the country since the US-led invasion in March 2003. “What happened has nothing at all to do with any sectarian tension,” he said on television.
Some witnesses blamed poor organisation for the death toll.
Whatever sparked the rush for safety, the fear that a bomber might be on the loose was well grounded after previous attacks on Shia religious events in the past two years.
Three separate mortar and rocket attacks on the crowd heading to the mosque to celebrate the martyrdom of Musa al-Kadhim had killed seven people before the stampede. They were claimed by a little known Sunni group.
Tensions are high among Iraq’s rival religious and ethnic communities ahead of a referendum on a new constitution for the post-Saddam Hussein era.
Television images showed people clambering down from the bridge to escape the surging crowd and piles of slippers left behind by the crush of people.
Hysterical women knelt over corpses, wailing and praying.
Ambulances rushed to the scene and people hoisted bodies onto stretchers while others lined the river banks and crowded the bridge.
Scores of bodies were covered with whatever was around ' foil, clothes or plastic sheeting.
A woman wept over the body of her dead child in al-Nu’man hospital. Dozens of bodies were strewn across the floor.
The hospital was filled with the sounds of screaming and wailing as disconsolate men and women searched for loved ones.
President Jalal Talabani said it was “a great tragedy which will leave a scar on our souls”.
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. Some 250,000 pilgrims had travelled from other parts of Iraq for the events, organisers said. The figure was lower than normal, they said, due to security fears.
Despite the draft constitution, there has been no easing in an insurgency waged by Sunnis, dominant under Saddam, and international guerrillas inspired by Osama bin Laden.