By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer
Trampled, crushed against barricades or plunging into the Tigris River, more than 700 Shiite pilgrims died Wednesday when a procession across a Baghdad bridge was engulfed in panic over rumors that a suicide bomber was at large.
Most of the dead were women and children, Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said. It was the single biggest confirmed loss of life in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Sabah Ali, a senior official in the Health Ministry, said 719 were killed and 383 injured.
Tensions already had risen among the Shiite marchers because of a mortar attack two hours earlier on the shrine where they were heading. Then the crowd was slowed by barriers about a quarter of the way across the Two Imams Bridge, Interior Minister Bayn Jabr said on state-run TV.
"Pushing started when a rumor was spread by a terrorist who claimed that there was a person with an explosive belt, which caused panic and the pushing started," Jabr said. "Some fell from the bridge, others fell on the barricades" and were trampled to death.
The barriers are meant to keep Sunni and Shiite extremists out of each other's neighborhoods at opposite ends of the bridge.
The two-lane, 300-yard-long bridge was littered with abandoned hundreds of sandals lost in the pushing and panic. Children who had plunged 30 feet off the bridge floundered in the muddy waters, trying to reach dry land.
Survivors were rushed in ambulances and private cars to hospitals. Thousands raced to both banks of the river to search for survivors, and bare-chested men jumped in to try to recover bodies.
Scores of bodies covered with white sheets lay on the sidewalk outside one hospital whose morgue was jammed. Many were children, old men and black-gowned women.
Sobbing relatives wandered about, lifting sheets in search of their kin. When they found them, they would shriek in grief, pound their chests or collapse.
Casualty figures from official sources varied because survivors were taken to several hospitals, and officials were scrambling to establish accurate tallies.
Hamid Jassim, a doctor who was on the scene when panic erupted, said most of the dead were suffocated or trampled. "Many of the panicked people who jumped into the Tigris trying to save themselves survived with broken bones. Others drowned because they did not know how to swim," he told The Associated Press.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiites had been marching across the bridge, which links a Sunni district to Kazimiyah, a Shiite neighborhood which contains the tomb of Imam Mousa al-Kadhim, a 9th century Shiite saint.
TV reports said about 1 million pilgrims from Baghdad and outlying provinces had gathered near the shrine, about a mile from the bridge, for the annual commemoration of the saint's death.
"We were on the bridge. It was so crowded. Thousands of people were surrounding me," said survivor Fadhel Ali, 28, barefoot and soaked. "We heard that a suicide attacker was among the crowd. Everybody was yelling, so I jumped from the bridge into the river, swam and reached the bank. I saw women, children and old men falling after me into the water."
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, declared three days of mourning.
Shiite processions, which can draw huge crowds, are often targeted by Sunni extremists seeking to trigger sectarian war. Mortar shells had exploded in the shrine compound about two hours before the bridge disaster, killing at least seven people. U.S. Apache helicopters fired at the attackers.
In March 2004, suicide attackers struck at two shrines, killing at least 181 people.
The head of the country's major Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, said it was the latest on "the list of ongoing Iraqi tragedies."
"We want to express our condolences to all the Iraqis and the parents of the martyrs, who fell today in Kazimiyah and all over Iraq," the cleric, Haith al-Dhari, told Al-Jazeera TV.
Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded in separate incidents in central Iraq, the military said. One soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday in the city of Iskandariyah in central Iraq. Another soldier was killed and three wounded when a bomb exploded Wednesday next to their patrol near the town of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Witnesses said the town of Qaim, about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, was quiet and virtually deserted Wednesday after a day of U.S. airstrikes and heavy fighting between the pro-government Bumahl tribe and the pro-insurgent Karabilah tribe. Iraqi officials said 45 people died, most in the tribal clashes, during which hundreds fled their homes for refuge in the countryside.
The border region is considered a prime infiltration route for smugglers and foreign militants trying to reach central and western Iraq.
This week's violence came amid new twists in the road to a constitution for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad raised the possibility of further changes to the draft completed by the dominant Kurdish and Shiite Arab bloc but vehemently opposed by Arab Sunnis who form the core of the armed insurgency.
Khalilzad said he believed "a final, final draft has not yet been, or the edits have not been, presented yet" — a strong hint to Shiites and Kurds that Washington wants another bid to accommodate the Sunnis before the charter goes to a referendum Oct. 15.
Khaled al-Attiyah, a Shiite on the constitution drafting committee, responded that "no changes are allowed ... except for minor edits for the language."
This indicated that the Shiites and Kurds were unlikely to compromise on their core demand that Iraq become a loose federation. Sunnis fear this would eventually lead to the breakup of the nation.
Sunni Arabs are about 20 percent of the population. They could still scuttle the charter because of a rule stating that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject it, it would be defeated.
Even if the Sunnis lose the referendum, a bitter political battle at a time when the Sunni-led insurgency shows no sign of abating could plunge the country into a full-scale sectarian conflict.
The Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq condemned attacks by foreign fighters against "our beloved people" and urged the government to "stop criminals and terrorists from crossing into Iraq."