Thousands flock to funeral of nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims killed in stampede
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Wailing over the coffins of loved ones Thursday, Shiites buried the nearly 1,000 victims of a stampede on a bridge while politicians and ordinary Iraqis demanded the government explain whether botched security controls may have played a part in the tragedy.Tension and confusion persisted one day after the biggest loss of life in a single event in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. Gunfire erupted at the bridge during a protest march, killing a 12-year-old girl and wounding four other people.Meanwhile, U.S. jets launched airstrikes for the third time in a week near the Syrian border, destroying a train station the U.S. command said was used by al-Qaida in Iraq to store weapons.In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, women wept and embraced the simple wooden coffins of the victims of Wednesday’s stampede and pounded their chests in a traditional gesture of mourning. Men carried the coffins, some draped with Iraqi flags, to the Valley of Peace, the world’s most venerated cemetery for Shiite Muslims where many Iraqis prefer to be buried.Others were laid to rest in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum of about 2 million inhabitants where U.S. troops fought a radical Shiite militia last year. Many of those who died on the bridge were from Sadr City.The Health Ministry said the casualty toll from the stampede, which broke out as a result of rumors that a suicide bomber was in the crowd, stood at 965 dead and 439 injured. The Interior Ministry said no final tally was available but that the death toll was between 900 and 1,000.Politicians and grieving relatives demanded answers from the government about whether poor crowd control and inefficient security services may have contributed to the horrific death toll.”This is a result of the inadequate performance of the interior and defense ministers, which has caused such a loss of life,” said Baha al-Aaraji, a Shiite lawmaker allied with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.Al-Aaraji said the ministers should “stand in front of” parliament and if the legislators believe they failed in their responsibility to protect marchers, “they should be dismissed and stand trial.”The stampede erupted as hordes of Shiite pilgrims, many women and children, were jammed up at a security checkpoint established months ago to restrict movement from a Sunni neighborhood on the eastern side of the river to a Shiite stronghold on the west side.Relatives of the victims complained of chaotic rescue services and a lack of information from the authorities.”My son has been missing for two days,” said Sabih Mudisher. “I have tried all the hospitals, emergency departments, you name it, but to no avail. Is it right what this government is doing?”Anger over the tragedy sent hundreds of Shiites marching toward the bridge Thursday, shouting slogans blaming al-Qaida’s Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for the stampede.Al-Zarqawi has called openly for sectarian war here, believing the Shiites to be traitors to the country and Islam.No one had told the Iraqi soldiers guarding the bridge about the demonstration, so as the angry crowd approached, troops fired over protesters, police said. Three people were hurt in the ensuing panic.Across the river in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah, police said gunmen in several cars opened fire toward the bridge. Local residents in turn shot at the gunmen’s cars.Gunmen on each side of the river thought they were under attack from the other and began firing across the river, pinning down dozens of pedestrians on the bridge. The 12-year-old girl was killed at the Sunni side of the bridge and one man was wounded, police said.The chaos only served to underscore how poorly prepared the Iraqi forces are to control security in the current atmosphere of violence and sectarian mistrust.In western Iraq, Marine F/A-18 jets destroyed a train station in the border town of Qaim after “numerous reliable sources” reported that al-Qaida was storing weapons there, the military said. There was no casualty report.It was the third day of strikes in the area in a week and took place as U.S. and Iraqi officials report sporadic clashes between a local tribe which supports the government and another that helps foreign fighters.Increasing tensions occurred as the country was preparing for the Oct. 15 referendum on the new constitution, which Shiite and Kurdish politicians pushed through parliament last weekend over the objections of Sunni Arab negotiators.On Thursday, a group of Sunni community leaders met in Ramadi and called on Sunnis to vote against the constitution because its provision for federal states would divide the country.The Sunnis also called for an end to the U.S. military presence, compensation to Iraqis for “what they lost in the occupation” and the release of all security detainees – the vast majority of them Sunnis – held by U.S. and Iraqi authorities.In other developments Thursday:-Three Iraqis were hanged for murder in the first executions in Iraq since Saddam’s ouster.-Iraq’s nascent air force carried out its first military mission when it flew two battalions of Iraqi troops into a troubled zone in the north of the country, a U.S. military spokesman said.-Gunmen in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killed a policeman and two former officers in Saddam’s army in two separate attacks.