Tue, Sep 06, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Praise for a Sunni teenager who died saving Shias

THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

A Sunni Arab teenager who died saving Shias during last week's stampede disaster in Baghdad has been hailed as a hero whose sacrifice should unify Iraq.

Othman al-Ubeydi drowned after rescuing at least three people who tumbled into the Tigris when Shia pilgrims panicked at rumors of a suicide bomber among them, leading to 1,005 deaths.

The 19-year-old student's face was on newspapers and television screens on Sunday and the provincial council said that a street would be named after him.

Ubeydi was sitting down to breakfast last Wednesday when loudspeakers from his Sunni mosque said Shias needed help at the al-Aima bridge, where Iraq's deadliest disaster since the 2003 invasion was unfolding.

While hundreds were crushed to death on the bridge, hundreds more jumped or fell into the river. Witnesses said that the teenager, a strong swimmer and wrestler who trained at a gym, repeatedly dived in and saved between three and seven people. However, he was exhausted when he tried to save a large woman, and she reportedly pulled him under.

Iraq's government and media called Ubeydi a martyr of national unity whose heroic sacrifice should reconcile Shias and Sunnis, rival Muslim sects which have edged towards civil war.

"He showed that we are all brothers," said the Shia prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, while visiting the family.

Ubeydi's father, Ali, said that his studious son had passed the supreme test of humanity, setting an example for the country. "He turned his soul into a bridge to save others."

One newspaper, Itijah al-Akhar, illustrated the theme with a bridge in the shape of two hands shaking. Another paper, Al Mada, showed a flower growing from a cactus. A state television network, al-Iraqiya, showed Shias and Sunnis chanting together. Um Qasim, 54, a Shia who lost her son to an insurgent attack, said that Ubeydi was a hero.

"We are one nation," she added.

Iraqi Sunnis, a once dominant minority, have been marginalized since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Their insurgency against the Shia-led government has produced escalating tit-for-tat assassinations and massacres.

However, few expect Ubeydi's story to turn back the sectarian tide. Though there was no suicide bomber, many Shias blamed last week's stampede on a climate of fear fostered by the insurgents.

A subsequent spate of attacks against Sunnis was thought to be a backlash, and a unity rally near the bridge at the weekend fizzled out. Shots were exchanged between the Shia west bank of the Tigris and the Sunni east bank.

Saddam is scheduled to go on trial on a charge of mass killing on Oct. 19, Iraq's government spokesman confirmed yesterday, adding that several of the ousted dictator's associates, including one of his half-brothers, would face trial with him.

"They will be tried for the execution of 143 citizens," he said, referring to reprisals for an assassination attempt on Saddam in the Shia village of Dujail in 1982, after which more than 140 male villagers were killed.

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