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Bridge stampede in Iraq leaves 650 dead
Updated: 2005-08-31 19:50

About 650 people many of them women and children were killed in a stampede Wednesday when panic engulfed a Shiite religious procession after rumors spread that a suicide bomber occupied the bridge they were crossing, officials said, the Associated Press reported.

Rescuers search for the victims in the Tigris river, in Baghdad, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005. A railing collapsed Wednesday on a bridge packed with Shiite worshippers marching in a religious procession, sending crowds tumbling into the Tigris River. At least 640 people died, including women and children, according to an official. [AP]

Scores jumped or were pushed to their deaths into the Tigris River, while others were crushed in the crowd in what appeared to be the single biggest loss of life in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Tensions already had been running high in the procession in Baghdad's heavily Shiite Kazamiyah district because of a mortar attack two hours earlier against the shrine where the marchers were heading. The shrine was about a mile from the bridge.

One survivor said panic ensued when a rumor spread that a suicide bomber was in the crowd.

Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Col Adnan Abdul-Rahman said 648 were killed and 322 injured. Most of the dead were women and children, he said. Survivors were rushed in ambulances and private cars to several hospitals and officials were scrambling to compile an accurate figure.

After the collapse, bare-chested men swam through the muddy river looking for bodies.

"We were on the bridge. It was so crowded. Thousands of people were surrounding me," said survivor Fadhel Ali, 28, barefoot and soaking wet after swimming in the river. "We heard that a suicide attacker was among the crowd. Everybody was yelling so I jumped from the bridge into the river, swam and reached the bank. I saw women, children and old men falling after me into the water."

Health Minister Abdul-Mutalib Mohammed told state-run Iraqiya television that there were "huge crowds on the bridge and the disaster happened when someone shouted that there is a suicide bomber on the bridge."

"This led to a state of panic among the pilgrims and they started to push each other and there was many cases of suffocation," he said.

Earlier reports suggested that the bridge's railing collapsed, but television footage showed the green, waist-high railing undamaged.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites were marching across the bridge, which links a Sunni and Shiite neighborhood, heading for the tomb of Imam Mousa al-Kadhim, a 9th century Shiite saint.

About two hours earlier, mortar shells exploded in the shrine compound, killing at least seven people. U.S. Apache helicopters fired at the attackers.

After the bridge disaster, thousands of people rushed to both banks of the river searching for survivors.

Television reports said about one million pilgrims from Baghdad and outlying provinces had gathered near the Imam Mousa al-Kadim shrine in the capital's Kazimiyah district for the annual commemoration of the Shiite saint's death.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, declared a three-day mourning period.

Shiite religious festivals have often been targeted for attack by Sunni extremists seeking to trigger civil war among the rival communities.

In March 2004 suicide attackers struck worshippers at the Imam Kadhim shrine and a holy site in Karbala, killing at least 181 overall.

The head of the country's major Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Sholars, told Al-Jazeera television that the disaster Wednesday was "another catastrophe and something else that could be added to the list of ongoing Iraqi tragedies."

"On this occasion we want to express our condolences to all the Iraqis and the parents of the martyrs, who fell today in Kazimiyah and all over Iraq," the cleric, Haith al-Dhari, said.

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