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How U.S. forces set the stage for...
Tragedy in Baghdad

By Eric Ruder | September 9, 2005 | Page 16

AS ANTIWAR activists from Cindy Sheehan's vigil in Crawford, Texas, left on a bus tour across the U.S., Iraq witnessed a terrible new tragedy that underlines the suffering caused by Washington's occupation.

Nearly 1,000 Iraqis died and hundreds more were injured August 31 in a stampede on a crowded bridge in Baghdad. The victims were primarily Shiite religious pilgrims. The stampede--on a bridge that connects a Shiite district of Baghdad with an area that supports the predominantly Sunni resistance--began when a rumor ran through the crowd that a suicide bomber was about to strike.

But the situation turned deadly in part because of road closures by the U.S. military--whose concrete barriers on the bridge choked off escape routes and hampered the speedy delivery of medical relief in the aftermath of the disaster.

Iraqi soldiers who fired into the air compounded the sense of alarm. And according to witnesses, Iraqi police on the scene started the suicide-bomb rumor--by trying to encourage the crowd to move faster by warning that the group could become a target.

The stampede was the single largest loss of life since the war began. Hundreds of children were among the dead. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari blamed the resistance for the tragedy and pledged "a very harsh hit." But his own transportation minister, Salam al-Maliki, disagreed, saying, "Multinational forces bear most of the blame for the catastrophe because they prevented the arrival of medical assistance to the area where the disaster took place."

The tragedy further exposed tensions between the main religious and ethnic groups in Iraq--Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and Kurds in the north--which have been exacerbated by squabbles over the U.S.-backed constitution that most Sunnis oppose.

Nevertheless, ordinary Sunnis did what they could to help those struggling to survive the stampede. One Sunni teen drowned in the Tigris River after saving at least seven people who had jumped off the bridge. "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," wrote journalist Robert Fisk.

Meanwhile, as Socialist Worker went to press, the U.S. had launched its largest military operation since last November's deadly assault on Falluja. Some 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops began a major offensive against "resistance strongholds" in the northern city of Tal Afar.

The antiwar bus tour from Crawford began with three buses full of veterans and family members leaving Camp Casey near George Bush's vacation ranch. The buses headed in different directions to carry the antiwar message to a string of cities across the country--before converging on Washington, D.C., in time for the September 24 antiwar demonstration.

Cindy Sheehan kicked off the southern branch of the Bring Them Home Now tour in Austin, Texas, on August 31. Hundreds greeted the bus as it pulled up in front of the Texas capitol building, and Cindy led the crowd on a march to City Hall, where more than 2,000 supporters filled the terraced steps and balconies.

Cindy told the crowd that despite the "chiggers, fire ants, rattlesnakes and going to the bathroom in a bucket...Camp Casey was the most life-affirming place in America." She led the crowd in several chants of "Not one more"--which she said had become the official theme of the tour. Not one more person should have to die for "greed, profits and power," she said. "The Iraqis' only crime was to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time--they are no threat to any of us."

As the Hurricane Katrina disaster unfolded, members of the Mendocino County chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP)--who were present at Camp Casey from the beginning--used their bus to bring leftover supplies of food and water to refugees in Covington, La.

Camp Casey Covington was initially set up in a park and then moved into the Covington Pine View Middle School, where VFP members provided food, medical support and communications, via a satellite connection. As Socialist Worker went to press, there were reports that the Red Cross wanted VFP members to leave, even though the person in charge of the school had given them complete access.

To find out dates and cities for the bus tour, go to Cindy Beringer contributed to this report.

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