Rescue workers searched through the rubble of a Shiite Muslim shrine in central Iraq into Sunday night after a landslide killed at least five people including a child.
After more than 24 hours of digging through collapsed rocks, wood and other debris, “we have found five bodies,” civil defense General Abdelrahman Jawdat told AFP.
“That could be the final toll,” he added, while digging continued in case there were other victims.
It is the latest tragedy to befall oil-rich but poverty-stricken Iraq, which is trying to move past decades of war but is hobbled by political paralysis, endemic corruption and other challenges.
Civil defense spokesman Nawas Sabah Shaker said earlier that between six and eight pilgrims had been reported trapped under the debris of the shrine, known as Qattarat al-Imam Ali, near the city of Karbala.
Rescuers drove a bulldozer through the shrine’s entrance, which resembles half a dome ornately decorated with blue tiles covered in Arabic script.
The sacred building, flanked by two minarets, sits at the base of high, bare rock walls. Part of its concrete roof had been torn apart.
Jawdat said rescuers had recovered the bodies of two women, a man and a child, and were working to free the corpse of the fifth victim, another woman whom they had located.
Armed security forces guarded the shrine entrance while rescuers worked inside, and onlookers watched from behind a metal fence.
Three children were rescued earlier following the Saturday afternoon disaster, emergency services had said, adding that they were in “good condition” and being monitored in a hospital.
Rescue teams working through the night Saturday were able to provide oxygen, as well as food and water to some of those trapped through gaps in the rubble, state news agency INA said.
‘Save the trapped people’
Iraqi President Barham Saleh on Twitter called on the “heroic” rescue workers to “mobilize all efforts to save the trapped people.”
Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi urged his interior minister to directly supervise the rescue on the ground and wished the injured a swift recovery.
Emergency responders had said earlier they were maintaining verbal contact with the victims “to reassure them.”
“We are working hard, with the utmost precision, to reach” those trapped, Jawdat, director of the civil defense media department, had said. “Any mistake could lead to further collapses.”
One man at the scene, Bassem Khazali, said his nephew was among those buried.
“I am afraid that all the efforts undertaken will be in vain… We want to know what happened, why it happened,” Khazali told AFP.
Civil defense spokesman Shaker told AFP that “sand dunes and rocks collapsed onto the shrine building,” blaming humidity.
The stricken shrine is dedicated to Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, who according to Shiite tradition stopped there with his army on his way to a battle in AD 657.
It is located in a natural depression about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Karbala, the Shiite holy city which is the burial place of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Shiites view Hussein, who died in battle in AD 680, as the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed, the issue at the heart of a schism with Sunni Islam.