Fri, Sep 02, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Grieving Iraqis bury their dead

PILGRIM TRAGEDY Mass funerals began for those killed in a stampede, but many people were still searching hospitals, hoping to find their relatives alive

AFP , BAGHDAD

Iraqi men place the coffin of a relative on top of a car in Baghdad yesterday. Thousands of grieving Iraqis were searching for their loved ones as mass funerals began, a day after a deadly stampede on a Baghdad bridge killed nearly 1,000 pilgrims.

PHOTO: AFP

Thousands of grieving Iraqis were searching for their loved ones yesterday as mass funerals were due to be held for the nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims killed in a deadly stampede on a Baghdad bridge.

At least 965 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, were crushed to death, trampled underfoot or drowned on Wednesday as panic swept through the crowds sparked by rumors 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.

The crowds stampeded shortly after insurgents killed seven people in a mortar strike at the nearby Kadhimiya mosque where up to 3 million Shiites had gathered for a religious commemoration.

Another 815 people were injured in the tragedy and some 200 remained in hospital yesterday, officials said, while bodies were still being pulled from the river.

Dozens of tents have been set up in Shiite-dominated neighborhoods of the capital as grief-stricken Iraqis searched for loved ones.

The air was full of cries of despair and anguish in Baghdad's Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood, as hundreds beat their chests in grief as death reports continued to trickle in.

"I was looking for my son since yesterday among the wounded, but just now I found his body in a morgue ... I never accepted he would die," Mohammed Jafar said.

Iraq authorities said the tragedy -- which could inflame sectarian tensions in the country -- was a "terrorist" act by toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's loyalists and al-Qaeda's frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"The terrorist pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives ... and that led to the panic," Interior Minister Bayan Baker Solagh told state-owned Iraqia television.

The stampede occurred just hours after the Kadhimiya mosque -- the burial place of Shiite imam Mussa Kazim who died 12 centuries ago -- came under mortar fire, leaving at least seven dead and 37 wounded.

The incident could further stoke tensions between the country's Shiite majority and the ousted Sunni elite which has provided the backbone to the raging insurgency, only days after divisions were revived over the writing of the country's post-Saddam constitution.

But Iraq's revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for unity after the tragedy, the latest to befall the majority Shiite community in Iraq.

A carpet of shoes of victims littered the bridge where waist-high concrete barriers designed to foil car bombers were stained with the blood of victims who had been crushed against them.

Iraq's national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie blamed loyalists of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda's frontman in Iraq, Abu Musa al-Zarqawi for spreading rumors on the bridge.

"The crowd started to panic and women and children were being trampled underfoot," said Abdul Walid, 54, lying dazed on a hospital floor. "My son was on my shoulders, I don't know where he is now -- everybody was suffocating to death so I eventually had to jump."

An Al-Qaeda-linked group calling itself the Jaiech Al-Taifa al-Mansoura claimed it carried out the attack on the mosque to "punish the genocides committed against Sunnis."

Officials said 25 people died of poisoning after eating or drinking products that had been deliberately contaminated.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the Shiite community, declared a three-day mourning period.

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