Iraq buries stampede dead as politicians point fingers

The body count nears 1,000 as officials acknowledge that security measures may have compounded the tragedy.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Fatima Saeed was given up for dead, one of the hundreds of bodies found crushed after a stampede during a Shiite holiday Wednesday and piled onto a truck.

But doctors, sifting through the influx of bodies at Baghdad Hospital, discovered that she was still alive.

"I found myself in the hospital," says Ms. Saeed, swathed in black and still shaken the next day. "There was a human wave.... I thought I would die because there was so much weight. I asked Imam Kadhim for help and then I lost consciousness."

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Saeed is one of several hundred people injured in the stampede during a ceremony marking the death of Imam Mussa Kadhim, a Shiite saint, at the gold-domed shrine in Baghdad. Estimates of the dead range from 800 to more than 1,000 and 400 to 800 injured.

Tensions are never higher than during large religious Shiite holidays, which attackers often use to kill en masse and send a political message. And while officials say they took measure to prevent violence, many are concerned about the tragedy's ability to exacerbate already strained relations between Sunnis and Shiites. A three-day mourning period, officials hope, will tamp down efforts to retaliate.

Adnan Kadhimi, deputy chief of staff to the prime minister, said the health minister is still trying to get an accurate count of casualties, and an investigation has been launched to see if negligence or foul play is to blame. The dead and injured are being tested for poison after persistent rumors that water and food served to the pilgrims was tainted.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabor and two top Shiite officials blamed insurgents for the stampede, saying a terrorist spread a rumor of a suicide bomber in the crowd.

But Defense Minister Saadoun Al-Dulaimi said the stampede was not related to sectarian tensions. "What happened has nothing at all to do with any sectarian tension," he said on television.

At the same time, Iraqi officials acknowledged that the tragedy probably was compounded by security measures taken to prevent insurgents from crossing into the Kadhimiya neighborhood during the Shiite observance.

Also, a mortar attack just hours before the stampede that killed 15 and injured 30 was claimed by a little-known Sunni group in an Internet statement. The posting on a website that often carries messages from Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents could not be authenticated.

Pilgrimages at shrines in Baghdad and the southern cities of Najaf and Karbala have been marred by suicide bombings - at least 181 people were killed in coordinated blasts at Shiite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad in March 2004, the deadliest such incident.

Turnout was particularly high Wednesday, as Kadhim is especially beloved as the 7th imam, or religious leader of Shiites. A fight over whether he or another leader should be the 7th imam led to a split in the Shiite community that persists today.

Days before Wednesday's culmination of ceremonies, rumors were rampant that suicide bombers would disguise themselves as Iraqi police and food traditionally given out at such events would be poisoned, the same way Imam Kadhim was killed some 1,200 years ago.

Those concerns lead the Kadhimiya office of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, which oversees the shrine, to warn worshipers during last Friday's sermon to only eat food from people with badges from the Sadr office and be on the lookout for suspicious characters. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia had stepped up security in areas they control across Baghdad for the 10 days leading up to Wednesday's commemoration.

The more than 1 million pilgrims were already overwrought from the traditional expression of grief at the ceremony. Men rhythmically beat themselves with their fists or even chains and women wail and pull at their faces.

In was in this atmosphere that shouts that a suicide bomber was approaching sent the thousands of pilgrims on the bridge into a panic.

Abdel Redha Abdullah was crossing the bridge toward the shrine Wednesday when the crowd suddenly rushed toward him, knocking him to the ground and piling on top of him. They said "Go back! Go back!" he recalls from a hospital bed, his leg in a cast. Person after person fell on top of him. "It felt like I would die any minute. I saw a woman die in front of me."

Several survivors said both ends of the bridge were blocked by concrete barriers, forcing people to file through one at a time. An official from the Ministry of Interior's press office, who declined to give his name, said he didn't know about any barriers. As the panic spread, people took the only way out, off the sides of the bridge into the Tigris river.

Ambulances took at least an hour to make their way through the throngs of people and barriers to the bridge. In the meantime, citizens raced to rescue people.

Abdullah says he was crushed under bodies for what seemed like 15 minutes. "Then a guy I don't know lifted my chin and lifted a body off of me," he says. Abdullah was passed down a human chain of rescuers and waited on the muddy banks of the Tigris for an ambulance.

Like many of the pilgrims, Abdullah was from the impoverished Sadr City.

"In one district [of Sadr City] there were more than 12 funerals," says a relative of Taha Ramadan, a survivor who broke his leg in the stampede.

Wire material was used in this report.

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