Unembedded Journalism: Aug-Sept 2005 reports from Robert Fisk in Iraq Print E-mail
 London --Thursday September 1 2005

In Iraq, a man-made disaster

One thousand feared dead after Shia pilgrims are caught in stampede

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, and agencies

Martyrdom has always been a foundation of the Shia Muslim faith. But yesterday's tragedy gave it new meaning: possibly as many as 1,000 men, women and children were killed when they fell from a bridge over the Tigris river in Baghdad, apparently fearful that a suicide bomber had been let loose among them.

There was no bomber. But there was death on a massive scale as hundreds of Shia Muslims fell over the railings of the narrow bridge. Hundreds of children were among the dead.

Bodies drifted for hours downriver from the Qadimiya district of Baghdad. Soldiers who fired their rifles into the air compounded the carnage.

Several mortar rounds had earlier exploded on the road, leading many of the marchers - commemorating the death in 799 of Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Qadim, one of Shiism's 12 principal saints - to believe they were under attack. At least a million Shia pilgrims were walking to the Qadimiya mosque when the crowd, trampled upon, crushed against barricades and hurled into the river, fell from the Aima bridge. Children could be seen drowning in the Tigris in what was the greatest loss of life in Iraq since the invasion of the country in 2003. Hundreds of sandals, foot packages and headdresses were heaped on the bridge after the deaths; hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of corpses brought to their mortuaries. At one point, Shia pilgrims could be seen hurling themselves from the bridge into the Tigris as they became crushed between panicking civilians.

Others fell from the end of the bridge and landed on the shore, their bodies crashing down amid the swings of a riverside children's park. "I saw an old woman, who was completely panicked and crying, throw herself from the bridge," Khalid Fadhil, a goldsmith who witnessed the stampede, told a reporter from The Washington Post. "I saw another man falling on the bricks of the shore who died immediately. I saw seven people were brought dead near the end of the bridge, smothered. Other people were running and shouting 'Allahu Akbar' [God is great]."

"Whoever was able to swim and knew how to swim survived. The people who didn't know died," said Sattar Jabbar, 22, a fighter in the Shia Mehdi Army militia who was on security duty. He helped pull people out of the river after jumping in himself.

The death toll was put at more than 965 dead and hundreds more injured.

In March last year, 180 people died, many of them Shia pilgrims, when they were attacked by insurgents in Baghdad and in the holy city of Karbala. Fearing more attacks, the authorities blocked off roads across northern Baghdad on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims converged on the capital. The country's Health Minister, Abdul-Mutalib Mohammed, told Iraqi television that there were "huge crowds on the bridge and the disaster happened when someone shouted that there is a suicide bomber on the bridge. This led to panic among the pilgrims," he said, "and they started pushing each other and there were many cases of suffocation."

The security commander for the Qadimiya district, in north Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris, confirmed this analysis.

But pilgrims became frightened after mortar shells landed on the crowds in the morning, killing at least six people. A rumour started that a suicide bomber was among the crowd. Pilgrimages to the Baghdad shrine of Imam Moussa Qadim, the eighth-century Shia saint, were banned by Saddam Hussein. The revival of such pilgrimages has attracted enormous crowds over the past two years and an estimated one million pilgrims were on the road yesterday. In the aftermath of the disaster, tens of thousands of pilgrims continued their mournful procession and Shia women were seen keening over dead bodies in the streets.

The bridge where the disaster took place connects a Shia district with a part of Baghdad that supports the insurgency. The Sunni side has many former Hussein Baath party loyalists and Sunni fundamentalists. The disaster occurred just days after the new draft constitution was put before Iraq's parliament despite fierce objections by Sunni representatives. Prominent Sunnis want voters to reject the draft constitution when it is put to a referendum in October, and there have been angry protests against it among Sunnis across northern and central Iraq.

In the aftermath, Sunnis from the east side of the Tigris told how they had tried to save pilgrims who fell on to the concrete by taking the injured to a Sunni mosque and university. Others helped out with boats and, at a turn in the river, the fast-flowing current dumped bodies on the shoreline. Hospitals on both side were soon filled with bodies. The full scale of the disaster was clear at Baghdad's Medical City hospital, where heartbroken relatives and corpses filled the hallways, spilled onto the parking lot and the lawn. Arab television stations also showed bodies of men, women and children laid out on hospital floors, water streaming from their women's abayas and the black trousers and shirts of Shia pilgrims.

When hospitals could take no more victims, the bodies were laid side by side on the footpath and covered with white cloths and foil blankets. It was a scene of raw and pitiable emotion as women pulled back the covers in a desperate search for loved ones. Many survivors blamed the Shia security, rather than insurgents.Searches of men had caused bottlenecks to build up as pilgrims streamed toward the shrine. On the other side of the checkpoint another crowd built up as returning pilgrims tried to push their way home.

Shia death toll

* 31 August 2005: Worshippers stampede in Baghdad during commemoration of Shia saint's death, killing as many as 1,000 pilgrims.

* 10 March: Suicide bomber blows himself up at a Shia mosque during a funeral in Mosul, killing 47 and wounding more than 100.

* 28 February: Suicide car bomber targets mostly Shia police and National Guard recruits in Hillah, killing 125 and wounding more than 140.

* 18 February: Two suicide bombers attack two mosques, leaving 28 people dead, while an explosion near a Shia ceremony kills two others.

* 19 December 2004: Car bombs tear through Najaf funeral procession and Karbala's main bus station, killing 60 people and wounding more than 120.

* 26 August: A mortar barrage slams into a mosque near Najaf, killing 27 people and wounding 63.

* 2 March: Co-ordinated blasts from suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives strike Shia shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing 181 and wounding 573.

* 29 August 2003: A car bomb explodes outside a mosque in Najaf, killing 85 people, including Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

Source: AP
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 London -- Saturday August 27 2005 [via The Information Clearing House]

How easily we have come to take the bombs and the deaths in Iraq for granted

If 'we' had not invaded Iraq, 43 Iraqis would not have been pulverised by three bombs last week
By Robert Fisk

08/27/05 " The Independent"
-- -- Taking things for granted. Or, as a very dear friend of mine used to say to me, "There you go." I am sitting in Baghdad airport, waiting for my little Flying Carpet Airlines 20-seater prop aircraft to take me home to Beirut but the local Iraqi station manager, Mr Ghazwan, has not turned up like he used to. Without him, I can't enter departures or check in.

Back in January, he was here, telling me he wouldn't forget to take me through security, talking to an Iraqi officer who looked remarkably like him, telling the officer to look after me. Ghazwan spoke careful, grammatical English and would laugh at himself when he made mistakes.

So I call Ghazwan's mobile and an old man answers. I want to speak to Ghazwan, I say. "Why?" Because I need to know when he'll be at the airport. There is a kind of groan from the other end of the line. "He was killed."

I sit there on my plastic airport seat, unable to speak. What? What do you mean? "He was killed by the enemy," the old man says and I hear the receiver taken from him.

A young woman now, with good English. "Who are you?" A passenger. English. I start apologising. No one told me Ghazwan was dead. Even the Beirut travel agents still list his name as a Baghdad contact.

The young woman - it is his wife, or rather his young widow - mutters something about him being killed on the way to the airport and I ask when this happened. "On the 14th of March," she says. I had last seen him exactly five weeks before his death.

And the story comes out. His brother was a security guard at the airport - presumably the officer who looked like him whom I had met in February - and the two men were leaving home together to go to work in the same car when gunmen shot the brother dead and killed Ghazwan in the same burst of fire. I apologise again. I say how sorry I am. There is an acknowledgement from the young woman and the mobile is switched off.

Taking things for granted. I am back in Beirut, watching the new Pope visit his native Germany. He meets Cologne's Jewish community. He talks of the wickedness of the Jewish Holocaust. He should. He speaks warmly of Israel. Why not?

Then he meets the Muslim community and I see them on the screen, heads slightly bowed, eyes glancing furtively towards the cameras. To them he lectures on the evils of terrorism. It all seems logical even though I can never quite shake off the knowledge that the Pope was a wartime German anti-aircraft gunner. Anti-abortion, anti-gay and, once, anti-aircraft.

But then I sit up. In his first address, there is no word about Israel's occupation of the West Bank, its expanding settlements on other people's land, against all international law. And the Muslims, well, they do have to be reminded of their sins, of their duty to extirpate "terrorism", to preach moderation at all times, to stop the scourge of suicide bombers.

And suddenly I am shocked at this profound lack of judgement on the Pope's part. Yet meekly aware that I had myself gone along with it. It was the Pope's job, wasn't it, to apologise to the Jews of Europe. And it was his job, wasn't it, to warn the Muslims of Europe.

Thus do we fall in line. Yes, he should apologise for the Holocaust - to the end of time. But might not His Holiness, the former anti-aircraft gunner, have also apologised to the Muslims for the bloody and catastrophic invasion of Iraq - no, no, of course there's no parallel in evil, scale, etc - but he might have at least shown the courage of his predecessor who stood up against George Bush and his ferocious war.

Taking things for granted. In Baghdad and then in Beirut, I read of the latest "anti-terror" laws of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. Of course, of course. After suicide bombers on the London Underground, what else do we expect? Our precious capital and its people must be protected.

Having been three or four trains in front of the King's Cross tube that exploded on 7 July, I take these things seriously myself. And were I back on the London Tube today, I'd probably be trying to avoid young men with backpacks - as well as armed members of the Metropolitan Police.

And after all the panjandrums in the press about our wonderful security forces, I'd also be taking a close look at these fine and patriotic folk. These are the men (and women?) who lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These are the chaps who couldn't get a single advance trace of even one of the four suicide bombings on 7 July (nor the un-lethal ones a few days later). These are the lads who gunned down a helpless civilian as he sat on a Tube train.

But hold on a moment, I say to myself again. The 7 July bombings would be a comparatively quiet day in Baghdad. Was I not at the site of the an-Nahda bus station bombings after 43 civilians - as innocent, their lives just as precious as those of Londoners - were torn to pieces last week.

At the al-Kindi hospital, relatives had a problem identifying the dead. Heads were placed next to the wrong torsos, feet next to the wrong legs. A problem there. But there came not a groan from England. We were still locked into our 7 July trauma. No detectives are snooping around the an-Nahda bomb site looking for clues. They're already four suicide bombs later. An-Nahda is history.

And it dawns on me, sitting on my balcony over the Mediterranean at the end of this week, that we take far too much for granted. We like to have little disconnects in our lives. Maybe this is the fault of daily journalism - where we encapsulate the world every 24 hours, then sleep on it and start a new history the next day in which we fail totally to realise that the narrative did not begin before last night's deadline but weeks, months, years ago.

For it is a fact, is it not, that if "we" had not invaded Iraq in 2003, those 43 Iraqis would not have been pulverised by those three bombs last week. And it is surely a fact that, had we not invaded Iraq, the 7 July bombs would not have gone off (and I am ignoring Lord Blair's piffle about "evil ideologies"). In which case the Pope would not last week have been lecturing German Muslims on the evils of "terrorism".

And of course, had we not invaded Iraq, Mr Ghazwan would be alive and his brother would be alive and his grieving widow would have been his young and happy wife and his broken father would have been a proud dad. But, as that friend of mine used to say, "there you go".
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.
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London -- Sunday August 21 2005 [via the Information Clearing House]

People torn to pieces, relatives scream - another week in the theme park of death

There are now two Baghdads. One is the Green Zone, where US and Iraqi officials live in a protected realm; the other is the danger zone, where everyone else lives.
Robert Fisk reports from beyond the Coalition's concrete walls

08/21/05 " The Independent"
-- -- On Monday, George Bush was praising the greedy sectarian politicians here - who had totally failed to meet the new Iraqi constitution deadline - for their "heroic" efforts for "democracy". At about the same time, I came across a friend at one of Baghdad's best-known hotels. He is the deputy manager and I've known him for more than three years, but he now looked twice his age. He grasped my arm and looked into my face. "Mr Robert," he said, "do you realise I was kidnapped?" Every day now, I come across Iraqi acquaintances - or friends who have cousins or fathers or sons - who have been kidnapped. Often they are released. Sometimes they are murdered and I go to their families to express those condolences which are especially painful for me - because I am a Westerner, arriving to say how sorry I am to relatives who blame the West for the anarchy that killed their loved ones. This time my friend survived, just.

Another good friend, a university professor, visits me for coffee the next day. The absence of identities in this report tells you all you need to know about the terror which embraces Baghdad. "I was invigilating the last exams of term in the linguistics department and I saw a mature student cheating. I walked up to him and said I believed he was cribbing. He said he wasn't. I told him I would take his papers away and he leant towards me and made it clear I would be murdered if I prevented him completing his exams. I went to the head of department. I thought he would discipline this man and take away his papers. But he talked to him and then said that he could continue the exam. My own head of department failed me completely." My professor friend loves English literature, but he has new problems.

"Many of the students are now very Islamically oriented. They want their classes taught through the prism of their religion. But what can I do? I can't teach existentialism any more because it would be seen as anti-Islamic - which means no more Sartre. These same people ask me for the religious message in Eugene O'Neill's plays. What can I say? I can't teach any more. Do you understand this? I can't teach." Since Baghdad's " liberation" in April 2003, 180 professors and schoolteachers have been assassinated in Iraq, and shortly after my professor's visit, I receive a call from one of his colleagues.

"They kidnapped old Amin Yassin and his son two days ago. We don't know where they are." Amin Yassin was not, like some of his colleagues, an ex-Baathist. He was a retired linguist who taught grammar in the English department of Baghdad University. His 30-year-old son is a secondary school teacher. The two were seized in the Khavraha neighbourhood, seven miles west of Baghdad.

On Thursday, in the an-Nahda bus station, two bombs tear 43 people to pieces - almost all of them Shia Muslims - and at the al-Kindi hospital, which also receives a bomb close by, relatives of the missing are screaming as they try to identify the dead. The problem is that the morticians can't fit the limbs to the right bodies and, in some cases, the right heads to the right torsos. I head off to the Palestine Hotel where one of the largest Western news agencies has its headquarters. I take the lift to an upper floor only to be met by a guard and a vast steel wall which blocks off the hotel corridor. He searches me, sends in my card and after a few minutes an Iraqi guard stares at me through a grille and opens an iron door.

I enter to find another vast steel wall in front of me. Once he has clanged the outer door shut, the inner door is opened and I am in the grotty old hotel corridor.

The reporters are sitting in a fuggy room with a small window from which they can see the Tigris river. One of the American staff admits he has not been outside "for months". An Arab reporter does their street reporting; an American travels around Iraq - but only as an "embed" with US troops. No American journalists from this bureau travel the streets of Baghdad. This is not hotel journalism, as I once described it. This is prison journalism.

One of the Americans, an old and brave friend of mine from Beirut days, walks over. "Have a look at this, Fisky," he says. "This is the kind of crap we get from the Americans these days - this is what they want us to write about." It is a news release from the Coalition press office, the spin doctors of the occupation troops here. "Comics Bring Barrels of Laughs to Task Force Baghdad," it says.

I drive back across Baghdad. There is a massive traffic jam because the Iraqi National Guard - the American-trained Iraqis who are supposed to save Donald Rumsfeld's career and let the US forces reduce their troop strength here - have mounted a checkpoint. Most of them are so frightened that they are wearing ski-masks over their mouths. Like every Iraqi I meet, I do not trust the Iraqi National Guard. They have been infiltrated by both Sunni and Shia insurgents and now have a nasty propensity to carry out house raids on Sunni areas, to arrest the menfolk and then to steal as much money as they can find in the house. "First they arrest my son and then they take all my jewellery," a woman complained on an Arabic satellite channel that was investigating this venal militia.

I go home and switch on my television to find the BBC reporting on an " elite" force of Iraqi troops who are receiving anti-terrorism training in Britain. And there they are, foliage attached to their helmets, leaping over hedges and cooling streams. In the Welsh mountains.

Friday night. In the heart of this vast and oven-like city stands the Green Zone, 10 square kilometres of barricaded, walled, sealed-off palaces, villas and gardens - once the Raj-like centre of Saddam's regime wherein now dwell the Iraqi government, the constitutional committee, the US embassy, the British embassy and many hundreds of Western mercenaries. Many of them never meet Iraqis. Women in shorts jog past the rose beds; armed men and women " contractors" lie by the pool. There were at least three restaurants - until one of them was blown up by suicide bombers. You can buy phone accessories in a local shop, newspapers, pornographic DVDs. For tactical reasons, the Americans were forced to include dozens of middle-class Iraqi homes inside the Green Zone, a decision that has outraged many of the householders. They often have to wait four hours to pass through the security checkpoints. Irony of ironies, the tomb of Michel Aflaq, founder of the Baath party that once included both Iraq and Syria, lies inside the Green Zone.

On Friday night, this crusader castle was bathed in its usual floodlights. I was looking up at the stars over the city when there was a dull sound and a flash of light from within the Green Zone. Somewhere not far from me, someone had launched a mortar at the illuminated fishbowl that has become the symbol of occupation for all Iraqis. Many ask what will become of it when the whole Western edifice here collapses. Some say it will become insurgent headquarters, others the next parliament. My guess is that whoever runs Iraq once the occupation collapses will turn the whole thing into a theme park. Or maybe just a museum.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.