BAGHDAD, Iraq – For decades, enmity between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities has run deep and deadly. This week, the Shiite-Sunni rift appeared to vanish momentarily, as hundreds of desperate Shiite pilgrims caught in the crush of Wednesday’s bridge stampede leapt into the Tigris River.

Hundreds of Sunnis flocked to the river’s eastern bank, many diving in to rescue Shiite pilgrims drowning in the Tigris’ muddy waters. Othman Ali Abdul-Hafal was one of them. The 19-year-old wrestler swam out and rescued five people, pulling them safely back to the embankment.

He died trying to rescue one more – an old woman not far from the bank.

On Thursday, Iraqi families began burying the more than 950 Shiites who died in Wednesday’s stampede on Al-Aimmah Bridge, believed to have been caused by shouts that a suicide bomber was within the crowd of pilgrims heading toward Kadhimiyah mosque in northern Baghdad.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims had gathered in Baghdad’s Khadimiyah neighborhood to pay tribute to Moussa al-Kadhim, a ninth-century Shiite imam and one of the sect’s holiest figures. The anniversary of his death is regarded as Shiite Islam’s third-holiest annual event.

In the panic, scores of people were trampled underfoot or crushed against concrete barricades. Many more tried to escape by clambering up to the bridge’s edge and leaping into the Tigris.

No evidence of a suicide bomber or any explosives were found. Iraqi officials have begun investigating the incident, including the role played by concrete barricades placed on the bridge to prevent insurgent attacks. Witnesses said the barricades hindered pilgrims’ ability to escape.

“The government should take measures for an honest investigation to determine how failures doubled the casualties,” Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told state-run Iraqiya television.

Tension between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities has grown this year as sectarian clashes and revenge killings committed by extremists on each side have risen steadily.

The relationship between the two groups worsened during negotiations over Iraq’s draft constitution. Sunni Arabs have argued that Iraq’s Shiite majority, together with the country’s Kurdish leaders, commandeered the drafting process and submitted a draft charter that could lead to the breakup of the country.

The bad blood was set aside, however, when Sunnis in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood on the Tigris River’s east bank watched in horror as the bridge stampede unfolded. Bilal Sameer, 25, was sitting in front of his house along the east bank when he saw Shiites leap into the river in desperation.

“People were jumping, so we ran toward the bank, and I jumped into the river,” Sameer said. “I knew they were drowning – some were shouting, “Suicide belts! Suicide belts!”‘

Sameer swam about 15 yards and rescued a 15-year-old boy. He dived back in and pulled a 20-year-old man safely ashore.

“I did not think twice,” Sameer said. “This is my brother and he is drowning. We are all brothers. It wasn’t just me. All the young men in the neighborhood jumped in to save Shiites. Those who didn’t know how to swim waited at the bank to help.”

Abdul-Hafal, an electrical engineering student, was studying for a final exam when he heard the commotion on the bridge, his father said. He threw on some clothes and ran toward the bank.

Abdul-Hafal was exhausted after the first five rescues, witnesses said. When he reached the old woman, her struggling pulled them both under water.

“This martyred young man is a message to all government officials who believe there is a difference between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Yunis Ismail Nada, 42, a family friend. “Othman never thought that this neighbor is Shiite and that neighbor is Sunni.”

Meanwhile, in western Iraq on Thursday, U.S. F-18 fighter jets dropped 500-pound guided bombs on a train station that U.S. military leaders believed was being used by militants of al-Qaida in Iraq as a safe house. The airstrike occurred in Husaybah, near the Syrian border, a U.S. military statement said. The number of militants killed in the strike had not been determined.

U.S. fighter jets launched airstrikes on militant safe houses in Husaybah last Friday and on Tuesday this week after receiving tips from local Iraqis, the statement said. U.S. military officials said Tuesday’s strike killed several militants, though Arab media reported as many as 40 people died in the attacks, some of them women and children.

In Baghdad, Iraq carried out its first executions since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, hanging three men convicted of the slayings of three police officers in Wasit province, as well as rape and kidnapping.

Death sentences must be endorsed by a three-member panel led by Talabani. However, the Iraqi president opposes the death penalty and instead authorized one of his vice presidents to sign the order. At least seven other people, including one woman, have been sentenced to death, though their cases are still under review, The Associated Press reported.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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