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August 31, 2005

Fire on a Crowded Bridge: Iraq's Deadliest Day
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Dead_from_the_bride As many as 1000 people died today in a stampede in Baghdad that occurred when a rumor spread of an impending suicide attack spread among a crowd of close to a million Shiite pilgrims amassed on a bridge.   It sounds like the classic fire in a crowded theatre situation, and we'll probably never know whether the crier genuinely believed a bomb was about to explode, or was just out to manufacture chaos.  Rockets fired into the crowd shortly beforehand killed 7, undoubtedly raising the level of tension.

A few observations:

1.  The bizarreness and tragedy of this incident underscores just how bad things have become in Baghdad.   While the incident is being blamed on terrorism, there's actually no evidence that terrorists were responsible for spreading the rumors (note correction here - SN).   This may have been triggered by nothing more than someone mistaking a bulky backpack or jacket as packed with explosives.   It's an example of what can happen in a society that's been taken over by terrorism.  No threat is idle.  People live in a state of near-panic.  A rumor can cost 1000 lives.   Two plus years after the US invasion, that's the state of affairs in Iraq.

2.  Even though there's no clear evidence that the uproar was created intentionally, the incident is being blamed on followers of Zarqawi has served to inflame Shiite-Sunni tensions  This means that these deaths will begat more violent deaths.

3.  The Iraqi government apparently had ample warning the crowd would be gathering - the impetus was a major religious holiday that was bound to draw a massive turnout.  Yet there were few police and military on-hand to try to maintain control.  Afterward a Shia militia, the notorious Mahdi army, took over checkpoints with the government soldiers busy sealing off the affected areas.   So much for Iraq's blossoming capabilities as far as law and order. 

4.  The incident is also sparking theories that the government intentionally put the crowd at risk by allowing it to assemble where it did.   Iraqi officials fed the rumor mill, with the Minister of Health saying "I hold my colleagues in the ministries of interior and defence responsible for what happened today."

In sum, if you haven't yet been wrecked by the news out of New Orleans, this incident is depressing at a variety of levels:  the sheer loss of life, the likely aftershocks, and mostly for what it signals about conditions in Iraq.


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....Rockets fired into the crowd shortly beforehand killed 7, undoubtedly raising the level of tension.

A few observations:

1. The bizarreness and tragedy of this incident underscores just how bad things have become in Baghdad. While the incident is being blamed on terrorism, there's actually no evidence that terrorists were responsible.

What do you call people who fire rockets into a crowd?

True - there's no evidence terrorists planted or spread the rumor among the crowd. Certainly the earlir attack played a role. SN


I find it strange, given your penchant for bullet points, that you haven't suggested some simple precautions that could have prevented such a tragedy, and instead focus on this as a sign of "how bad things have gotten." One reason it has "gotten this bad" is that people aren't taking simple and reasonable precautions that would reduce the effect of an incident, even if it occurred.

I take your point that the fact of mortar and bomb attacks have people "on edge," but I know of no way to impact that variable other than killing the "lieutenants" that recruit attackers, and interfering with their supply lines. And that's basically what we're doing.

Logistically, how would you have deployed troops to provide this crowd with more security? To me, it seems an insoluable problem.

You want bullets. How 'bout these:

1. More Iraqi police/troops on site
2. American troops backing them up
3. Loudspeaker/bullhorns so that leaders could've calm people down
4. Removing barricades that apparently impeded people's ability to move
5. Advance planning for the quite foreseeable possibility that such a massive crowd would somehow erupt (getting to amass somewhere other than a bridge)

Might not have prevented it but sure could've helped.


I'd probably ask a crowd control expert, but I think 3, 4 and 5 are good advice. I don't think that, at least in this instance, 1 and 2 would have made much difference. It's an ugly irony, but not entirely incommensurate with the human condition.

There was a certain frequency af assaults and even murders at taxi stops in NYC that were the result of escalating arguments over who had a "right" to the cab. Then someone got the idea of painting a line on the curb. Once people got the clue, from the line, that they were supposed to cue up and wait their turn instead of competing for the cab the assualts stopped.

We're human. We do that sort of stuff. It'd be a great idea for policy people to take human nature into account once in awhile.

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