But as the day wore on, it became clear that the tragedy had more to do with inadequate policing and haphazard crowd control than with sectarian animosities. If anything, many Shi'ites said, the Sunnis behaved honorably, both before and after the tragedy. After all, over a million Shi'ite pilgrims had passed unmolested through the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya on their way to the bridge. And when disaster struck, its residents rushed to the rescue. Many jumped into the Tigris River to pull out pilgrims who had leaped (or fallen) off the bridge; others took injured and exhausted pilgrims into their homes, providing food and shelter until emergency crews arrived. Moir al-Obaidy, a construction worker, and other residents grabbed ladders and slides from a nearby children's playground and used them to help pilgrims off the bridge. "We took beds from a [Sunni] seminary to carry injured people," he said.
The succor was as surprising as it was welcome. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Adhamiya has turned into a safe haven for Sunni insurgents, earning the nickname "Baghdad's Fallujah." There's little love lost between Adhamiya and Sadr City, the giant Shi'ite slum whose residents made up the majority of the victims. At Adhamiya's ancient Abu Hanifa mosque, close to the Bridge of Imams, sermons routinely laud the jihadis who have been killing Shi'ite civilians and curse the Shi'ite-dominated government. Yet on Wednesday, the yellow-brick mosque became a makeshift triage station for emergency crews and a lost-and-found center for pilgrims separated from their loved ones in the stampede.
Even Shi'ite and Sunni political and clerical groups, who had been at each other's throats for months, managed to find a modicum of solidarity. "This is not the time for politics," said Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, spokesman for the radical Association of Muslim Scholars (A.M.S.). "This is the time to show that we are all of the same flesh, the same body." The A.M.S. and other Sunni groups were working with groups loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi'ite leader and uncrowned king of Sadr City. In an unprecedented gesture, the A.M.S. even invited Shi'ites to joint prayers on Friday.
Alas, the cessation of sectarian hostilities was too good to last. A day after the tragedy, a brief gun battle broke out between Iraqi security forces on the bridge and some Sunni insurgents in Adhamiya. And al-Qaeda's Iraqi offshoot, led by Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, claimed credit for an earlier rocket attack on Kadhimiya, the Shi'ite district on the other side of the bridge. Drive-by shootings at Sunni mosques in southern Iraq last Friday suggested scapegoating by some Shi'ites. And calls for a peace march after the joint prayers in Baghdad proved futile: not enough people turned up.
But the Shi'ite pilgrims and Sunnis remained united in one important aspect: they both blamed the tragedy on the Shi'ite-dominated government, which had failed to anticipate the number of pilgrims before the stampede, and made a hash of relief efforts afterward. Especially angry were Baghdad's Shi'ites; in Sadr City, mass funerals quickly turned into anti-government demonstrations. Dismissing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's announcement of a three-day mourning period for the victims as mere eyewash, many called for his resignation and for that of his ministers for defense and the interior.
Al-Jaafari and his ministers are safe in office for the moment. But the rage generated by the stampede could hurt the government on Oct. 15, when Iraqis hold a referendum on the highly contentious new constitution. The dominant Shi'ite parties may find it a hard sell to a populace angered by official ineptitude and callousness.
Sunnis oppose the constitution, but can only defeat it if two-thirds of voters in any three provinces vote against it. Sunni leaders are confident they can get the numbers in two—Anbar and Salah ad Din—but their hopes for the third, Baghdad, rest on Muqtada al-Sadr and his two million followers in Sadr City. The A.M.S.'s al-Qubaisi says his group is already working with al-Sadr to persuade Shi'ites to vote against the constitution. The relationships forged during last week's tragedy and the goodwill generated by the Sunnis of Adhamiya could yet yield a political payoff.