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648 dead, 322 hurt in Iraq bridge stampede
Updated: 2005-08-31 20:58

At least 648 people were killed in a stampede on a bridge Wednesday when panic engulfed a Shiite religious procession amid rumors that a suicide bomber was about to attack, officials said. It was the single biggest confirmed loss of life in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

Scores jumped or were pushed to their deaths into the Tigris River, while others were crushed in the crowd. Most of the dead were women and children, Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.

Tensions already had been running high in the procession in Baghdad's heavily Shiite Kazimiyah 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.

Abdul-Rahman said 648 were killed and 322 injured, with survivors rushed in ambulances and private cars to several hospitals, where officials scrambled to compile accurate casualty figures.

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

Thousands of people rushed to both banks of the river to search for survivors, and bare-chested men jumped in to try to recover bodies.

Scores of bodies covered with white sheets lay on the sidewalk outside one hospital because the morgue was jammed. Many of them were women in black gowns, as well as children and old men.

Sobbing relatives wandered amid the bodies, lifting the sheets to try to identify their kin. When they found them, they would shriek in grief, pound their chests or collapse to the ground, sobbing.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites had been 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.

Television reports said about 1 million pilgrims from Baghdad and outlying provinces had gathered near the shrine in the capital's Kazimiyah district for the annual commemoration of the saint's death. The shrine is about a mile from the bridge.

"We were on the bridge. It was so crowded. Thousands of people were surrounding me," said survivor Fadhel Ali, 28, barefoot and soaking wet. "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.

Shiite processions, which can draw huge crowds, are often targeted by Sunni extremists seeking to trigger sectarian war, so worshippers are on guard for trouble.

First reports suggested that the bridge's railing collapsed, but TV video showed the green, waist-high railing undamaged.

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

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 Scholars, told Al-Jazeera television that Wednesday's disaster 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," said the cleric, Haith al-Dhari.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday by a roadside bomb in the city of Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, the military said.

Eyewitnesses said the town of Qaim, about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, was quiet and virtually deserted Wednesday after a day of heavy fighting between the pro-government Bumahl tribe and the pro-insurgent Karabilah tribe. Iraqi officials said 45 people had died in the clashes, during which hundreds of residents fled their homes and took refuge in the surrounding countryside.

The border region is considered a prime infiltration route for smugglers and foreign militants trying to reach central and western Iraq.

This week's violence came amid new twists about Iraq's draft constitution. On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad raised the possibility of further changes to the draft charter finalized by the dominant Kurdish and Shiite Arab bloc but vehemently opposed by Arab Sunnis who form the core of the armed insurgency.

Sunnis had demanded revisions in the constitution, and Khalilzad's move indicated the Bush administration has not given up its campaign to obtain some sort of Sunni endorsement for the national charter.

Khalilzad said he believed "a final, final draft has not yet been, or the edits have not been, presented yet" a strong hint to Shiites and Kurds that Washington wants another bid to accommodate the Sunnis before the Oct. 15 referendum.

Shiite leaders had no comment on the ambassador's remarks. As constitution wrangling drew to a close last week, Shiite officials complained privately that the Sunnis were stonewalling and that further negotiations were pointless.

Khaled al-Attiyah, a Shiite member of the constitution drafting committee, insisted Tuesday that "no changes are allowed" to the draft "except for minor edits for the language."

This indicated that the Shiites and Kurds would be unlikely to compromise on their core demand for Iraq to be turned into a loose federation. Sunnis fear this would eventually lead to the breakup of the nation which has been ruled as a centralized entity since it was established by British occupiers in the 1920s.

Sunni Arabs form an estimated 20 percent of the population. They could still scuttle the charter because of a rule that states that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject the draft, it would be defeated.

Even if the Sunnis lose the referendum, a bitter political battle at a time when the Sunni-led insurgency shows no sign of abating could plunge the country into a full-scale sectarian conflict.

The Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq condemned attacks by foreign fighters against "our beloved people" and urged the government to "stop criminals and terrorists from crossing into Iraq."

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