M A I N   N E W S

843 die in stampede
Bridge on Tigris collapses in Baghdad

Baghdad, August 31
At least 843 persons were trampled to death or drowned in a stampede in the Iraqi capital today after a deadly mortar attack on a sacred shrine where more than one million Shiite Muslim pilgrims were massed.

Most of the victims were women, children and the elderly, hospital officials said.

It was by far the deadliest incident since the US-led war on Iraq more than two years ago and could further stoke tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and the ousted Sunni elite behind the raging insurgency.

Many of the dead drowned after falling off a bridge into the Tigris river in a surge of panic triggered by rumours that suicide bombers were in the crowd following the attack on the Shiite shrine, officials said.

“The attacks are terrorist... who fired the mortars? Who spread panic among pilgrims on the bridge?” said Health Minister Abdul Mutalib Mohammad Ali.

A security official said the latest toll from the stampede stood at 843 dead and 388 injured, adding that the victims drowned, were suffocated or trampled to death.

Bodies of injured victims lined the corridors of Baghdad’s hospitals as they struggled to cope with the enormity of the disaster.

“Dozens of pilgrims fell in the river Tigris as they panicked following rumours of the presence of two suicide bombers in the crowd, while they were crossing Al-Aaimmah bridge near the mosque,” a security official said.

Meanwhile, two top Iraqi Shi’ite officials accused Islamist militants and loyalists to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of deliberately causing the stampede.

“We hold the terrorists, Saddamists and radical extremists, responsible for what happened,” Ammar al Hakim, a leader in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said.

Abdul Hadi al Daraji, spokesman for fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said insurgents had spread rumours there was a suicide bomber in the crowd to cause panic.

The stampede occurred shortly after the Kadhimiya shrine had come under mortar fire, which left at least seven people dead and dozens wounded, as crowds gathered to commemorate the death of a revered figure, Imam Mussa Kazim.

The US military said helicopters had fired on suspected rebels who carried out the mortar attack on the shrine and had sent ground units to the area to assist in tracking down those responsible. A dozen individuals were detained for questioning.

Six others were wounded when gunmen opened fire on Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighbourhood, an interior ministry source said.

“The pilgrims were heading towards the Kadhimiyah shrine and had passed a Sunni mosque on the way when some gunmen opened fire on them,” the source said.

In another rebel attack, three Iraqis, including a policemen were killed in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk when rebels attacked a police patrol.

The latest round of violence came a day after US air strikes on suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts near the Syrian border killed what a security source said was at least 56 persons.

The US military said it had no exact number of casualties, but claimed three strikes targeting “terrorist safe houses” were thought to have killed Abu Islam, a reported Al-Qaeda operative, and several associates.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said changes to Iraq’s draft constitution were still possible, raising the hopes of disgruntled Sunni Arabs.

The move came as the Sunnis, whose community is believed to form the backbone of the raging insurgency, were seeking alliances to defeat the 
charter in an October 15 referendum.

Khalilzad hinted that the draft constitution, presented to parliament on Sunday after weeks of tortuous negotiations that failed to bring the Sunnis on board, was still an incomplete document.

“If Iraqis amongst themselves, in the assembly and of course from outside, decide to make some adjustments to the draft that was presented two or three days ago, it is entirely up to them,” he told reporters.

“I believe that a final ... draft has not yet been — or the edits have not been — presented yet, so that is something that Iraqis will have to talk to each other and decide for themselves.”

President Jalal Talabani had said on Sunday the draft was ready for the October referendum.

The Sunnis leaders, who are mobilising the community to strike alliances across the sectarian divide, said they were opening talks wih radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

“We would like to cooperate with Moqtada al-Sadr and very soon we will start negotiations with him,” Saleh al-Motlag, a top Sunni negotiator, said.

Sadr, who has said he rejects any constitution drafted under the US-led occupation, enjoys widespread support among poor urban Shiites. His militia led one of Iraq’s fiercest rebellions against US-led forces last year.

A member of Sadr’s movement in Baghdad said: “Nothing is decided yet.

“There are several opinions but as of now we have decided to focus on registering our names to participate in the referendum. The final decision will be taken by Sadr later.”

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari criticised the Arab League over its “disregard” for Iraq, after its chief demanded to know why the draft failed to refer to the entire country as an Arab nation. Iraq has a number of non-Arab minorities, notably a large Kurdish population.

A contentious article of the draft states that “Iraq is part of the Muslim world and its Arab people are part of the Arab nation.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari declared three days of mourning after the stampede, state television reported.

Explosions were heard across Baghdad today morning. There were six mortar rounds exploding near the main airport, although the U S military had no information of any attacks there.

Despite the draft constitution, there has been no easing in an insurgency waged by Sunni Muslims, dominant under Saddam, and international guerrillas inspired by Osama bin Laden.

The U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 and has been battling insurgents while Iraqis have tried to form a new post-Saddam constitution and government.

The persistent fighting has helped to push down President George W Bush’s approval rating to a career low of 45 per cent on concerns over the war and soaring fuel prices, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll published on Tuesday.

The U S war in Iraq now costs more per month than the average monthly cost of military operations in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a report issued today.

The report, entitled ‘’The Iraq Quagmire’’ from the Institute for Policy Studies and Foreign Policy in Focus, both liberal, anti-war organisations, put the cost of operations in Iraq at $ 5.6 billion per month. This breaks down to almost $ 186 million a day.

“By comparison, the average cost of U.S. operations in Vietnam over the eight-year war $ 5.1 billion per month, adjusting for inflation,” it said. — Agencies


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