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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Sunni rescuer hailed as Iraq hero
A relative of Othman Abdul Hafez holds up a photocopied article about his exploits
Abdul Hafez's story has been extolled in the Iraqi press
A Sunni teenager who died while saving Shia victims of last week's Baghdad stampede has been praised as a "martyr" by Iraqi politicians.

Witnesses say Othman Abdul Hafez drowned as he tried to pull yet another Shia pilgrim from the River Tigris, having saved up to seven others.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said his actions were a "message to the whole world" about religious unity in Iraq.

About 1,000 people died in the stampede during a Shia religious procession.

The incident was apparently triggered by rumours of an imminent suicide attack on the ceremony.

Hundreds died either by being crushed, suffocated or by drowning after they were pushed into the river.

"The Shia dies as a martyr next to the Sunni while celebrating rituals, and the one of them sacrifices himself trying to rescue the other," said Mr Jaafari.

"This is a message to the whole world that the real problem is not between Sunnis and Shias," he added.

Strong swimmer

Politicians from both Sunni and Shia communities attended the teenager's funeral on Saturday.

"He represented Iraqi unity and we are proud of him because of his message that Iraq is one country, one nation and one religion," said Falah Shensel, a Shia National Assembly member.

A woman hopes to find the body of her daughter killed in a Baghdad stampede
Relatives of stampede victims are still searching for loved ones
Many of the dead were women, children, or the elderly, hospital sources said.

The 19-year-old, from the staunchly Sunni district of Adhamiyah, responded to calls to help the stricken Shia pilgrims broadcast from a local mosque.

Witnesses said he was a strong swimmer and saved many struggling Shias before himself succumbing to exhaustion.

His actions belie predictions that the stampede - blamed on Sunni-led insurgents - may exacerbate sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shias at a time of sectarian divisions over the drafting of Iraq's new constitution.


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