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Iraqis Mourn Nearly 1,000 Killed in Stampede

Thousands of people flocked to the funerals Thursday of the nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims killed in a stampede during a religious procession, as critics blasted the government for failing to prevent the tragedy.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari (search), who visited a hospital where many of the victims were taken, said neighboring countries such as Jordan and Iran had offered to help treat the victims.

"We are ready to send abroad any patient who needs medical treatment there," he said.

Wednesday's disaster on a bridge in north Baghdad (search) appeared to have been sparked by a rumor that a homicide bomber was among the more than 1 million people gathering at a Shiite shrine in the capital.

Most of the victims on Imams bridge were trampled or crushed in the midday stampede. Others plunged 30 feet into the muddy Tigris River (search). The majority of those killed were women and children, officials said.

Iraq's Ministry of Interior announced Thursday that 953 people had died and 815 were injured in the crush. But Health Ministry spokesman Qassim Yahya on Thursday said 843 had been killed and 439 injured. It was not possible to reconcile the two.

Critics said the authorities were to blame for a fumbled response to the disaster.

"This is a result of the inadequate performance of the interior and defense ministers, which has caused such a loss of life," said Baha al-Aaraji, a Shiite lawmaker affiliated to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"They should stand in front of the national assembly and be questioned. If it is proven that they have failed to fulfill their responsibilities, they should be dismissed and stand trial," he said.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, told state-run Iraqiya television that "the government should take measures for an honest investigation to determine how failures doubled the casualties."

The tragedy occurred during the annual commemoration of the death in the year 799 of Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, one of the 12 principle Shiite saints. He is buried in a mosque in the nearby neighborhood of Kazimiyah.

In Baghdad's Medical City hundreds of people were searching for their dead relatives. Many of the bodies were strewn on the floor outside the hospital's morgue, which itself was packed with corpses.

Crowds also gathered at the Imam Ali Hospital in Baghdad's eastern Sadr City district. Dozens of bodies were identified and taken away for burial by their relatives, medical workers said.

Most of the inhabitants of the impoverished district are Shiites who have moved to the capital from the countryside in the past several decades.

Many families erected large tents on Sadr City streets — a traditional venue for mourners to come to pay respect to the dead.

Some of the dead were being taken to Wadi al-Salam, or The Valley of Peace, a cemetery in the southern city of Najaf. Shiites believe that burial there, close to the shrine of Imam Ali, a 7th century Shiite saint, will bless the souls of the dead and secure their passage to heaven.

Since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, the Shiite political parties have encouraged huge turnouts at religious festivals to display the majority sect's power in the new Iraq. Sunni religious extremists have often targeted the gatherings to foment sectarian war, but that has not stopped the Shiites.

The ceremonies have often been chaotic, with huge crowds overtaxing the ability of police and security services to protect them. Television reports said about 1 million pilgrims from Baghdad and outlying provinces had gathered near the shrine on Wednesday.

Even before the stampede, the crowd had been on edge because of the 110-degree heat, a mortar barrage near the Kadhim shrine where they were headed and the ever-present fear of homicide bombers, etched into memories after repeated attacks against large religious gatherings.

Police later said they found no explosives at the bridge — either on any individual or in any cars parked nearby. Instead, poor crowd control and the climate of fear in Iraq after years of bullets, bombings and bloodshed appeared largely to have caused the horrific carnage.

Marchers jammed up at a checkpoint at the western edge of the Imams bridge, which has been closed to civilians for months to prevent movement by extremists between the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah and the Sunni district of Azamiyah across the river.