Death on the Bridge

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In Baghdad's supercharged political atmosphere, it was inevitable that reaction to Wednesday's tragedy on the Bridge of the Imams would be colored by sectarian sentiment. Within a couple of hours the city was already rife with wild rumors of an impending backlash by Shia pilgrims incensed by the death of nearly 800 of their fellows. Many streets were empty, and security forces were out in strength.

In the first hours after the tragedy, many Shia pilgrims blamed Sunni insurgent groups, even though first reports indicated the stampede was caused by (false) rumors of a suicide bomber at large on the bridge. "It's the fault of Sunnis for creating an atmosphere where such rumors are taken seriously," said Hussein Alwi, a pilgrim from Najaf. Some blamed American and Iraqi soldiers for setting up restrictive checkpoints elsewhere in the city that left the pilgrims just one way to the Kadhamiya Shrine.

But by the evening, as Baghdad residents absorbed the enormity of the tragedy, the sectarian sensibilities faded as many began to blame the Shia-dominated Iraqi government for failing to anticipate the numbers of pilgrims and provide for adequate security and crowd-control. "Everybody knew there would be more than a million people crossing the bridge today," said Sami Hilli, a Shia Baghdad resident. "Why were there not enough policemen here, to organize the traffic?"

Sunni political groups—some of whom were planning a demonstration to protest the killing of 36 Sunnis last week—responded to today's tragedy with a show of solidarity with the Shia. Even the radical Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents over 3,000 Sunni imams, expressed sympathy and offered help.