The death toll from a stampede of Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims continued to climb Wednesday, with security officials saying nearly 800 people perished and 323 were injured when rumors of a suicide bombing sparked chaos on a Baghdad bridge.
Most were trampled or fell into the Tigris River, as panic spread through the crowd of thousands following an attack by insurgents on a nearby mosque.
"There was a huge crowd on the bridge and what happened was that one terrorist spread a rumor that led to the stampede," Interior Minister Bayan Baker Solagh said on state-owned Iraqia television. "The terrorist pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives and that led to the panic."
According to hospital staff, many of the victims of the deadliest incident in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 were women and children. Dr. Jaseb Latif Ali, a general manager at Iraq’s Health Ministry, said he expected the death toll to hit 1,000, once all the bodies are recovered from the muddy river.
National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie blamed "Saddamists and Zarqawists" for the tragedy, referring to the followers of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a 37-year-old Jordanian radical believed to be behind a string of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and executions of foreigners in Iraq.
The victims were among an estimated one million pilgrims who had massed in the Khadimiya district for an annual ceremony commemorating the death of Musa al-Khadhim, a revered Shi’ite imam who died 12 centuries ago.
"We were on the bridge. It was so crowded. Thousands of people were surrounding me," one survivor, Fadhel Ali, 28, told the media. "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."
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has declared a three-day mourning period and appeared on television to appeal for national unity.
Analysts warn that the incident could ratchet up tensions just days after Sunnis rejected the country’s draft constitution, which goes to a national referendum on Oct. 15.
"With an absolutely pivotal moment in Iraq, with the constitution just agreed upon and a fierce debate taking place amongst Sunnis, they see it as a pro-Shia document. Inevitably there will be more to it than a freak accident," Richard Beeston, a correspondent with the Times of London, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In a message posted on an Islamist Web site, a Sunni group called the Jaysh al-Taefa al-Mansura claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s mortar attack on a large Shi’ite crowd gathered at the Kadhimiya mosque, which killed 16 people and injured dozens of others.
U.S. Apache helicopters fired on the attackers, a U.S. statement said. The stampede would occur barely two hours later.
Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s ambassador to Iraq, said Tuesday that there may be further changes to the draft constitution in order to win Sunni Arab approval, saying he believed a "final, final draft" had not yet been presented.
Khalilzad spoke alongside Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi, who has urged Sunnis to reject the constitution in the referendum, indicating that Washington is still hoping to gain Sunni endorsement before Oct. 15.
One of the points of contention is that the draft identifies Iraq as an Islamic but not Arab country a concession to the non-Arab Kurds. Many Sunnis felt the change threatens the nation’s ties to the Arab world and lumps Iraqis together with non-Arab, Shi’ite-dominated Iran.
Others worry that the language regarding the special place of Islam and Islamic law in the constitution may worsen the plight of religious minorities, particularly Christians, and women, despite repeated pledges by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that women’s and minority rights were among Washington’s highest priorities in Iraq.
Sunni Arabs comprise about 20 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people but hold overwhelming majorities in two western provinces and a smaller majority in a third and thus could single-handedly defeat the charter in the October referendum.
The attack was hardly the first to target a Shi’ite religious procession. In March 2004, suicide attackers struck worshippers at the Imam Kadhim shrine and a holy site in Karbala, killing at least 181 people.