At least two people have been killed and dozens injured in a stampede at a stadium in Basra in southern Iraq ahead of the Arabian Gulf Cup final.
The Iraqi interior ministry told Al Jazeera that two people had died and about 80 have been in injured in the stampede on Thursday.
Some of those injured were in critical condition, the official Iraqi News Agency quoted a medical source as saying.
Iraq are set to face Oman in the final of the eight-nation football tournament at 7pm (16:00 GMT) on Thursday.
Thousands of fans without tickets had gathered outside the stadium since dawn in hopes of watching the rare home international match.
A photographer with the Agence France-Presse news agency inside the stadium said the turnstiles were still closed when the stampede broke out. Sirens blared as ambulances arrived to ferry the injured to hospital.
Images posted on social media showed a sea of people outside the stadium.
At least two people have reportedly been killed and dozens injured in a stampede near a stadium in Iraq ahead of the Gulf Cup final ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/prPyJ4xKbp
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 19, 2023
Journalist Ismael Adnan, reporting from near the stadium, described the situation as “very chaotic”.
Football fan Moumen Adnan described to Al Jazeera how he was injured outside the stadium.
“I did not expect such chaos to happen,” he said. “Because of the stampede, I fell and injured my hand. I hadn’t been able to enter the stadium, but because of the stampede I entered through the journalists gate. I don’t expect the final to take place under these difficult circumstances.”
Iraq’s interior ministry in a statement urged people who don’t have tickets for the final to leave the area around the stadium. It said the stadium is full and all gates have been closed.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Basra, said some people without tickets tried to push into the stadium, according to sources in stadium security.
“Security has been calling for people to refrain from pushing at the gate,” Abdelwahed said. “Meanwhile, the prime minister arrived in Basra and has met with officials of Basra to look into the incident. He is calling on the fans to cooperate with security at the stadium.”
“According to the Iraqi Football Federation, about 90 percent of the tickets were already sold ahead of the kickoff,” Abdelwahed said, adding that this upset many Iraqi football fans, some of whom had travelled across several provinces to go to the game.
Sajjad Ahmed, 17, from Diwaniyah in southern Iraq, told Al Jazeera she had gone to the stadium with a friend.
“We reached the gates at 8am,” she said. “The situation was [difficult] due to the amount of fans wanting to enter the stadium. The gates were closed at about 12:30.
“If I had known that this would happen, I would not have come.”
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Al-Jasim, reporting from Basra, said more than 60,000 people were outside the stadium.
“Thousands arrived since yesterday night, and some slept on the streets, causing road closures, and many security forces came to control the crowds,” Al-Jasim said.
Major General Saad Maan, director of media and public relations at the interior ministry, urged people not to head to the stadium unless they have tickets for the match.
“The numbers of fans are very large, and we do not want there to be cases of suffocation,” he said in a statement.
The Iraqi Ministry of Sports also called on fans to leave areas around the stadium because the crowds were hindering the match.
According to the Iraqi Football Federation, the final match will be hosted on time tonight.
Iraq was already forced to apologise to its neighbour Kuwait after a scuffle in the VIP section prevented its representative from attending the opening ceremony.
The tournament started on January 6 with teams from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Iraq.
It is the first time since 1979 that Iraq has hosted the tournament. Decades of sanctions on Iraq had prevented the country from hosting any sports events.
Abdelwahed said tens of thousands of people had arrived from abroad, putting “more pressure on the already weak infrastructure of the city”.
“The authorities say they are lucky to host such a special event, but the city is not as fully prepared as it should be,” he said. “Basra has been suffering from several problems in past decades, such as a lack of services, security vacuums and a lot of conflicts even recently.”
Abdelwahed said the central government in Baghdad does not have any development plans for Basra “despite the fact that Basra is a rich city, 70 percent of Iraqi oil [comes from Basra], it is still suffering and it’s partly marginalised.”
Additional reporting by Ismael Adnan in Basra, Iraq.