Stampede in Baghdad Kills Over 800 Shiite Pilgrims
Thursday, September 1, 2005
BAGHDAD, Sept.1 -- Rumors of a suicide bomber sowed panic among thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims Wednesday on a bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad, triggering a stampede in which many jumped into the turbid river or fell to their deaths on sidewalks and a children's playground below.
The Iraqi Health Ministry on Thursday put the death toll at 843. The Interior Ministry said 953 people were killed and 815 injured, the Associated Press reported. Bodies of victims had been taken to many hospitals, mosques and private homes, making an accurate count difficult.
The disaster took more lives than any other single incident in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Tensions had been high among the pilgrims, who were marching to Baghdad's Kadhimiyah shrine, because of an insurgent rocket and mortar barrage earlier in the day that killed seven worshipers. Survivors and security officials placed much of the blame for the stampede on securi-
ty checkpoints set up at the entry to the bridge that narrowed foot traffic to one or two people at a time so that guards could search male pilgrims for explosives.
In a twist for a nation increasingly besieged by sectarian rivalries, survivors and rescuers credited residents of a hard-line Sunni Arab neighborhood with helping to save the lives of countless Shiites. Witnesses said Sunnis from the Adhamiyah district waded into the Tigris to pull Shiites from the water and helped haul them to safety. Adhamiyah, where President Saddam Hussein made his last public appearance after the invasion, was one of the last neighborhoods in Baghdad to stop fighting occupation forces in 2003 and is still a stronghold of Baath Party loyalists.
"Adhamiyah saved them," said Ahmed Abdullah Hussein, a 62-year-old auto mechanic.
Some rescuers said the majority of victims suffocated on the bridge. "Their faces were black, black like this tire," Hussein, a Sunni, said at his repair shop, located in the shadow of the bridge.
Mariam Abbas, 22, a small, round-faced woman in a black veil, survived the crush on the bridge. "You felt your body would collapse; you could not breathe,'' she recounted.
Abbas said she clasped the shoulders of a young man beside her in a desperate attempt to lift herself high enough out of the throng to gasp air into her lungs. "Some people jumped from the bridge -- old men, young people, kids," she said.
As Abbas began losing consciousness, she said, she felt the grasp of a stranger who saved her.
"He grabbed me by my arms and held me up, and threw me down to his friends below the bridge," Abbas said. Her Sunni rescuers gently splashed water on her face to revive her. "They said, 'Are you okay?' And then they ran to help others."
Adhamiyah residents took hundreds of people, most of whom were mortally injured, to a Sunni mosque, a Sunni hospital and Sunni homes. Bystanders brought corpses to hospitals overflowing with the dead; many bodies were placed outside on sidewalks.