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Mass burial for Iraq stampede victims

Rumours of a suicide bomber may have triggered off Baghdad stampede.

world Updated: Sep 01, 2005 17:07 IST

Mass funerals were being held across in Iraq on Thursday for many of the nearly 1,000 Shiite Muslim pilgrims killed by a stampede on a bridge over the Tigris River.

Thousands of grieving people continued the grim search for loved ones, as bodies were still being pulled from the river and refrigerated trucks had been brought in to handle the overflow from the morgue at a nearby hospital.

The death toll from the tragedy stood at 965 in what was by far the largest single loss of life in Iraq.

Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly, who were crushed to death, trampled underfoot or drowned on Wednesday as panic swept through a massive crowd sparked by rumours of a suicide bomber in their midst.

Another 815 people were injured, and some 200 remained in hospital, officials said.

The stampede occurred shortly after rebel mortarfire targeted the nearby Kadhimiyah mosque, killing seven people and wounding 37, as up to three million Shiites converged on Baghdad for an annual religious commemoration.

Hundreds of funeral tents lined the streets of Shiite neighbourhoods in the capital. In Sadr City, the main Shiite district, cries of anguish filled the air, with hundreds of people beating their chests in grief as death reports continued to trickle in.

"I was looking for my son since Wednesday among the wounded, but just now I found his body in a morgue ... I never accepted he would die," said Mohammed Jafar.

Many charged that Iraqi insurgents, predominantly Sunni Muslims, were responsible for triggering the stampede by firing mortars at the mosque and then deliberately spreading panic.

An Al-Qaeda-linked group calling itself the Jaiech Al-Taifa Al-Mansura (Army of the Victorious Community) claimed it carried out the attack on the mosque to "punish the genocides committed against Sunnis."

Interior Minister Bayan Baker Solagh told state-owned Iraqia television taht a "terrorist pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives ... and that led to the panic."

Iraqi authorities said the tragedy, which could further inflame sectarian tensions, was a "terrorist" act by toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's loyalists and Al-Qaeda's frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ahmed Sabbar, 30, who was searching for a missing relative, said, "this is a genocide against the Shiites. It is a deliberate attack."

The incident could further stoke tensions between the country's Shiite majority and the ousted Sunni elite, which has fuelled the raging insurgency. It comes only days after divisions were highlighted when the two sides failed to agree on the text of a draft post-Saddam constitution.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for unity and restraint after the tragedy, one of many which has befallen the Shiite community.

"All Iraqis must have unity and close ranks so as not to give a chance to those who want to provoke discord," Sistani said in a statement issued from the holy southern city of Najaf.

Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group, said, "even if it wasn't directly caused by Sunni insurgents, the perception will be that it was."

Officials said 25 people also died of poisoning after eating or drinking products that had been deliberately contaminated.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite, declared three days of mourning.

Iraqi Health Minister Abdul Mutalib Mohammad Ali demanded the resignation of the interior and defence ministers, whom he blamed for the deaths.

The tragedy provoked widespread international outcry, with messages of sympathy flowing in from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, the Arab League and the Vatican.

The supreme leader of neighbouring Shiite Iran blamed US-led coalition forces for the deaths, saying they must be "held accountable".

"It is certain that Iraq's occupiers, who have imposed their evil presence in Iraq under the pretext of bringing security, are responsible for such devastating accidents," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States offered "sincere condolences" to those who lost relatives in the "tragic event".

Britain, which holds the EU presidency, said the stampede was a "terrible tragedy, initiated by terrorism", while Australia blamed the deaths on a "climate of fear" created by "terrorists" in Iraq.

Wednesday's tragedy came amid deep divisions over Iraq's draft constitution, with disgruntled Sunni Arabs seeking alliances to defeat the charter in an October 15 referendum.

First Published: Sep 01, 2005 16:04 IST