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1,000 Iraqis Die in Stampede Over Rumors of Suicide Bomb<P>By Robert F. Worth THE NEW YORK TIMES <P>BAGHDAD, IRAQ <P>

1,000 Iraqis Die in Stampede Over Rumors of Suicide Bomb

By Robert F. Worth


More than 950 people were killed and hundreds injured Wednesday morning when rumors of a suicide bomber provoked a frenzied stampede in a procession of Shiite pilgrims as they crossed a bridge in northern Baghdad, government and hospital officials said.

Most of the dead were crushed or suffocated, witnesses said, but many also drowned after falling or jumping into the Tigris River after the panicking crowd broke through the bridge’s railings. The disaster was by far the greatest one-day loss of life since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Fear had begun spreading in the crowd an hour earlier, after a group of insurgents fired rockets and mortars near the gold-domed Shiite shrine where the pilgrims were headed, killing at least seven people and wounding two dozen.

Insurgents have often struck at Shiite religious processions in the past. But the stampede appears to have started with unfounded rumors of a man wearing a suicide belt on the bridge.

The pilgrims were among a throng of hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Shiites from northern Baghdad and the surrounding area who had converged on the shrine bearing colored banners and symbolic coffins to mark the anniversary of the death of Imam Musa al-Kazim, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest figures.

“We were all chanting slogans about Imam Musa, and then people started shouting about a suicide bomber,” Waleed Hameed Andul al-Radha said as he lay on a cot at Kindi Hospital with a chest injury, after removing an oxygen mask to speak. “They started crashing into each other; no one would look back or give a hand to help the ones who had fallen. People started running on top of each other, and everyone was trying to save himself.”

In the aftermath of the stampede, with some pilgrims continuing their procession, black-clad women keened over dead bodies in the streets of Kazimiyah, the Shiite neighborhood where Imam al-Kazim’s shrine is situated. On the bridge itself, hundreds of the victims’ sandals and shoes had been swept into piles.

Local hospitals were overwhelmed, their floors lined with dead bodies, including many women and children, some drenched in river water. Relatives of the victims streamed in and out, some of them pulling up the sheets on dozens of bodies until they recognized one, and then bursting into wails of grief.

There were reports in Baghdad’s hospitals that some pilgrims had died in a mass poisoning. But Health Ministry officials said they could not confirm any poisonings. Shiite Muslims believe that Imam al-Kazim was poisoned by agents of Harun al-Rashid, the Sunni caliph, in the late eighth century, and history often merges with the present among religious pilgrims here.

The Iraqi authorities had blocked off roads to car traffic throughout northern Baghdad starting Tuesday evening, anticipating attacks on the hundreds of thousands of Shiites who were converging on the capital. The bridge where the stampede took place marks an especially fragile fault line, linking Kazimiyah with Azamiyah, a Sunni area that has long been a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein and the insurgency.