Iraqi officials say 965 Shi'ite pilgrims were killed Wednesday in a stampede on a bridge leading to a Baghdad shrine, but other Iraqi security officials, politicians, and the U.S. military in Baghdad are questioning the facts surrounding reports of the stampede in the northwest Kadhimiya district of the capital.
Accompanied by both U.S. and Iraqi army officials, VOA arrived at the Kadhimiya bridge about two o'clock Wednesday afternoon, roughly three hours after news agencies and television news stations began reporting that a deadly stampede had occurred at the site.
According to the reports which quoted Iraqi officials in Baghdad, thousands of people, mostly Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims, were traveling across the bridge on foot from neighboring Adhimiya district to a shrine in Kadhimiya to attend a ceremony mourning the death of a revered Shi'ite imam. Suddenly, a panic broke out, sending pilgrims fleeing for their lives.
The minister of health, Abdul Mutalib Mohammed Ali, said that hundreds of women, children and the elderly were trampled to death in the ensuing melee and hundreds of others jumped to their deaths in the Tigris River. Mr. Ali, who is close to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has called for the resignations of the ministers of interior and defense, blaming them for failing to ensure the security of the pilgrims.
The Iraqi army brigadier general in charge of security on the Kadhimiya side, Jaleel Khalaf Shuail, says he did not witness the stampede, but was told how it began. General Shuail says someone apparently screamed that a suicide bomber was among the crowd of people and triggered the panic.
On the bridge itself Wednesday afternoon, there was one striking sight, which did suggest that something catastrophic had occurred earlier. Hundreds of pairs of shoes littered both sides of the two-lane bridge, which some Iraqis said belonged to the more than 900 Shi'ites who allegedly perished in the stampede.
But there was also a strange absence of ambulances, medical personnel and rescue activities on the bridge or in the river. There was no sign of blood anywhere on the bridge and not a drop of blood could be found on a row of knee-high concrete barriers, which many of the victims were said to have been crushed against.
The barriers had been placed there the day before to deter suicide car bombings. Iraqi and U.S. military personnel, stationed at guard towers at a nearby base with a clear view of the bridge, report that they saw nothing out of the ordinary occurring on the bridge all morning.
Footage of the bridge from an American reconnaissance plane also shows no activity consistent with the reports of mass panic and deaths. The only confirmed incident on Wednesday in Kadhimiya was an early morning mortar and rocket attack, targeting the Shi'ite shrine where an estimated one million Shi'ites from around the country had gathered by day's end.
VOA visited the nearby Kadhimiya Hospital and found eight bodies and 33 civilians being treated for wounds.
The U.S. military says 20 suspects are now being held for questioning in the incident.