Horses and wooden carts Thursday hauled the coffins of hundreds of Shiite Muslims killed in a Baghdad stampede to a graveyard in the holy city of Najaf, about 90 miles south, where authorities banned automobile traffic for fear of car bomb attacks on the mourners.

Government ministries said 850 to 950 people died in Wednesday's stampede, which occurred as tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims crossed a bridge in northeast Baghdad to visit the shrine of a 9th-century Shiite cleric. The disaster was the greatest single loss of life in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

Rumors of a suicide bomber among the pilgrims helped set off the stampede, in which throngs plunged over the sides of the bridge or suffocated in the crush. Many survivors said inept crowd control contributed to the carnage.

The dead were being buried in Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery. Religiously observant Shiites believe burial there, near the shrine of a 7th-century Shiite saint, will help secure their passage to heaven.

Shiite political and religious leaders pledged to cover the costs of all funerals.

Many residents of Najaf left their homes Thursday to help carry the roughly 600 coffins that had arrived. Iraqi police and soldiers stood guard in Najaf's old city to ward off insurgent attacks on Shiite funerals, which have occurred repeatedly.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the government carried out the first legal executions since the fall of President Saddam Hussein, hanging three men convicted in southern Iraq of murder, kidnapping and rape, government spokesman Laith Kubba said.

The return of the death penalty opens the way for the possible execution of Hussein and other former senior officials now awaiting trial. Many in Iraq's Shiite- and Kurdish-led government are eager to see Hussein convicted and put to death, which they say would help defuse the insurgency.

In western Iraq, Marine F/A-18 Hornet jets carried out more airstrikes against suspected al Qaeda targets near the Syrian border, a Marine statement said. Precision-guided 500-pound bombs destroyed a train station in Husaybah where about 50 followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi's insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq, had been stashing weapons, the statement said.

Separately, the U.S. military announced the maiden mission for Iraq's rebuilding air force. C-130 cargo planes carried Iraqi troops to the northern city of Tall Afar, where insurgents have reestablished a substantial presence.

Knickmeyer reported from Baghdad.

Iraqi policemen and civilians duck and run for shelter as gunfire erupted after protesters marched to the site of Wednesday's stampede in Baghdad.