Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) More than 640 Iraqi Shiites died in a stampede as people ran from a Baghdad mosque onto a bridge on the Tigris River whose iron railings gave way, panicked by rumours suicide bombers were about to blow themselves up, an Interior Ministry source reported. Most of the victims were women and children, it said.
The victims were attending a ceremony at the al-Kadhimiya Shiite Mosque. Earlier in the day, mortar rounds had been fired into the crowd, killing eight people.
The faithfulat least a million according to an Iraqi TV stationhad come to the Musa al-Kadhim Shrine to commemorate the martyrdom of the seventh Imam, one of the most venerated religious figures in Shia Islam.
After the first mortar rounds, the crowd began breaking up as people ran away after a rumour spread that two suicide bombers were about to blow themselves up. Panic-stricken worshippers fled in every direction uncontrollably suffocating and crushing those on their way. Then the iron railings gave way.
"Our hearts", said on TV Mohammed al-Kubaisi, spokesman for the Sunni Ulemas, "are filled with sorrow for the victims of the Khadimiah tragedy, but it is clear that there is conspiracy to destroy the social fabric of Iraq."
Al-Kubaisi then urged all Sunnites, "especially the residents of the Sunni neighbourhood al-Adhamiyah," to show their solidarity "by donating blood for the wounded and helping those in need".
Ahmed Abdel Ghaffur al-Samarrai, chairman of the agency that represents Iraqi Sunnis, said: "We are afraid that Shiites might retaliate, especially against al-Adhamiyah residents, which is near the al- Kadhimiya neighbourhood, where today's tragedy took place. We fear that this tragedy might provoke a civil war and we are afraid of Shiite retaliations".
Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari proclaimed three days of national mourning for the tragedy that struck the country's Shiite community.