BAGHDAD — Hundreds of Shiite Muslim pilgrims participating in an annual religious commemoration in northern Baghdad were killed Wednesday in a stampede on a bridge apparently triggered by fears of an insurgent attack and exacerbated by tight security restrictions.
At least 845 pilgrims, most of them women, children and the elderly, died. The Ministry of Health said the toll could rise to 1,000 or more. It was the highest death toll in any single incident in Iraq since well before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and was more than four times higher than that of the largest insurgent suicide bombing.
At least 400 Iraqis were injured in the chaos as they tried to cross a four-lane, quarter-mile bridge that spans the Tigris River. The victims were among the million Shiites from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere who had crammed into Baghdad's Kadhimiya suburb to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Musa al Kadhim, an 8th century Shiite saint, at his shrine.
"I died over and over again," said Iraqi Army Col. Hassan Jabouri, who carried away many dead children. "It's very hard to see a baby die in front of you."
Many of the victims were from Sadr City, the eastern Baghdad neighborhood where 2 million mostly poor Shiite Arabs live. As dusk settled, the streets of Sadr City turned into a vast funeral procession, as weeping men set up mourning tents and bodies were laid out in mosques to be washed before burial.
One woman arrived at the Saheb Zaman mosque in a taxi, crying and beating her face. She said she had lost her 9-month-old child in the crush and had come to search for him among the corpses.
"One family lost four members," said Fatah Sheik, a Sadr City politician who estimated that 600 of the dead were from his neighborhood. "We found a lady from Sadr City dead with her dead child lying on her chest. An old man took his two grandsons to the shrine. They came back in three boxes."
The exact cause of the melee remained unclear. Several mortar rounds, apparently fired by insurgents, had fallen on the crowds earlier in the day, killing at least six and making pilgrims and the many Iraqi soldiers and police officers on the scene skittish.
Pilgrimages at shrines in Baghdad and the southern cities of Najaf and Karbala have been marred by suicide bombings -- at least 181 people were killed in coordinated blasts at Shiite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad in March 2004, the deadliest such incident.
Some witnesses Wednesday said pilgrims panicked after a rumor spread that a suicide bomber was among them. The crowd was boxed in between high metal fences along the concrete-and-steel-girder bridge and unable to move backward or forward because of checkpoints in front and oncoming pilgrims behind.
Others said additional mortar rounds had been fired at the pilgrims, causing the panic.
Some victims, desperate to avoid being trampled, jumped into the river's muddy currents and drowned, witnesses and officials said. Most suffocated or were trampled to death as they tried to escape the two-hour morning melee.
Survivors described macabre scenes of chaos. Ali Younis Hossein, a 32-year-old laborer sitting on a mattress in the hallway of Karkh Hospital, described being nearly choked to death by the crowd on the Aima Bridge and pointed to a bite mark on his ankle inflicted by a victim underfoot.
"I had to step on them to get away," he said.
Survivors and security officials struggled to evacuate the injured and dead, their faces and lips blue from suffocation. Baghdad's hospitals were overwhelmed with the grieving and the dead.
After the chaos subsided, survivors gasped as they walked past mounds of colorful plastic slippers that were lying on the bridge along with tangled black abayas and purses.
Weeping women sorted through the piles, looking for the slippers of loved ones while scavengers searched the piles for valuables.
"My relatives are missing," said Saadeh Obeid, a 50-year-old woman.
In the midst of the macabre scene, one man repeatedly cried the Islamic monotheistic creed, "There is no god but God."
Iraqi politicians, including transitional Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi and National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, toured the scene, flanked by large security details.
Iraqi officials acknowledged that the tragedy probably was compounded by security measures taken to prevent insurgents from crossing into the Kadhimiya neighborhood during the Shiite observance.
Kadhimiya is a mostly Shiite neighborhood, whereas the area across the river, Adhamiya, is mostly Sunni Arab, the minority sect that once dominated Iraq and has driven the 2 1/2-year insurgency against U.S.-led forces and the Iraqi government.
Officials had worried that a recent uptick in sectarian violence could lead to full-fledged fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, especially as pilgrims marched through the streets of Adhamiya during the Imam Kadhim commemoration. Instead, Sunnis were seen helping evacuate injured Shiite pilgrims.