01/09/2005

First of stampede dead buried in Iraq

The funerals for over 950 people believed to have lost their lives when a crowd stampeded during a religious festival in Baghdad are taking place today.

The crowd stampeded when rumours of a suicide bomb attack circulated and spread panic among the Shia religious gathering in the Iraqi capital.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has rejected political recriminations, accusing former supporters of the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein. He rounded on calls by the Health Minister that the Minister for Defence and the Interior should step down. Mr Jaafari maintained that everything possible had been done to protect the thousands taking part in the religious procession.

However, mortars rounds reported to have been fired by insurgents were fired into the crowd of pilgrims as the procession converged on the Kadhimiya mosque. Several people were killed and at least 30 were reported to have been injured in the mortar attack.

The subsequent unrest in the crowd, thought to number around a million people, led to a crush along a bridge over the river Tigris in which hundreds were injured. Most of those who lost their lives, many women and children, died when the parapet of the bridge gave way and they fell into the river.

Reports from Iraq indicate that bodies are still being recovered from the river.

There have been calls for calm as there are concerns that the tragedy may provoke further unrest in Baghdad and across Iraq.

Three days of mourning are taking place across the country.

The loss of life in the stampede is the largest since the end of the invasion of Iraq to overthrow the regime led by Saddam Hussein.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw condemned the attack on the crowd as "depravity".

Mr Straw said: "The stampede which caused these deaths was started by mortar attacks. This was a despicable assault on innocent civilians attending a religious ceremony at the local mosque. The depravity of the individuals responsible knows no bounds.

"The United Kingdom and the European Union condemn utterly those who continue to use violence and terror in order to further their aims in Iraq, and urges all Iraqis to remain committed to the political process and its aim of establishing democracy and stability in their country."

(SP/KMcA)

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