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Funerals Held in Iraq for Muslim Pilgrims

In Iraq, funerals are being held in various parts of the country for Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims killed during a deadly stampede on a bridge in northwest Baghdad Wednesday. There are still questions about the incident and its escalating death toll.

VOA has learned that both the Iraqi ministry of interior and the ministry of defense have launched independent investigations to find out what exactly happened Wednesday on a Baghdad bridge that links the mostly Shi'ite Muslim district of Kadhimiya to the predominantly Sunni Arab district of Adhimiya.

The bridge, which spans the Tigris River, was supposed to have remained closed during the pilgrimage of an estimated one-million Shi'ites to a shrine in Kadhimiya to commemorate the death of a Shi'ite imam 12 centuries ago.

The Iraqi ministry of defense says it opened the bridge to foot traffic only after residents complained. Iraqi army officials insist that every security precaution was taken to ensure the safety of the pilgrims, including placing concrete barriers in the middle of the bridge to deter suicide car bombings.

As crowds of people were crossing the bridge between 10 o'clock and 11 o'clock in the morning, Iraqi officials say panic broke out when someone yelled that there was a suicide bomber among them.

Iraq's health ministry said that 965 people were either crushed to death or drowned in the river during a subsequent stampede. Baghdad's medical examiner put the death toll at 800, while the interior ministry said that the final tally was somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people.

But in a baffling contradiction to such reports, a 30-minute video of the bridge from a U.S. unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle, shot around 11 o'clock, shows no evidence that a melee of that magnitude took place.

The Iraqi army brigadier general in charge of security on the Kadhimiya side, Jaleel Khalaf Shuail, says while it is possible that some people on the bridge may have died during an incident, he believes the death tolls quoted by the health and interior ministries are exaggerated.

General Shuail says the figures are totally blown out of proportion and exaggerated to make the situation appear much worse than it was. He says he does not know why such information is being given to the media without facts to support them.

But some Shi'ites in Baghdad, like 43 year-old Ali Mohammed al-Zubaidi, say they saw stacks of bodies in hospitals and are convinced that hundreds of people did perish Wednesday.

"I saw many bodies in Medical City in Baghdad. I visited that place to look for some relatives and friends there," he said. "I saw around 150 bodies on the ground and in the garden of the hospital. I saw some mothers yelling. I saw some fathers calling for their sons."

The U.S. military says it counted 394 dead at three hospitals around Adhimiya Thursday, but it was uncertain whether all of them were victims of the bridge stampede.

Politicians and grieving relatives have blamed various government leaders and ministries for failing to provide the security needed to avert a disaster. Iraq's minister of health and a Shi'ite lawmaker, both with ties to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have called for the resignations of both the minister of interior and the minister of defense.

The minister of interior, Bayan Jabr, is a former officer of Moqtada al-Sadr's rival Shi'ite Badr Brigade militia and the minister of defense, Sadoun al-Duleimi, is a Sunni Arab academic from Fallujah.