- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

BAGHDAD

In a symbolic gesture of unity, Iraqi authorities Tuesday reopened a bridge linking Sunni and Shi’ite neighborhoods in Baghdad that had been closed since a 2005 stampede claimed nearly 1,000 lives - the single biggest loss of life of the Iraq war.

The Imams Bridge spans the Tigris River and links the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah - a former al Qaeda stronghold - and the Shi’ite district of Kazimiyah, where Shi’ite militias once held sway.

It has been closed since Aug. 31, 2005, when rumors of a suicide bomber panicked thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims walking to a religious shrine in Kazimiyah. Iraqi officials said the victims included those who jumped into the river or were crushed in the stampede.

The bridge remained closed to prevent gunmen from using it to launch attacks on rival religious communities.

On Tuesday, however, hundreds of Shi’ites from Kazimiyah and Sunnis from Azamiyah hugged and kissed friends or strolled across to see a part of the city where they had feared to venture during the wave of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007.

Government officials and clerics from the two Muslim sects gathered on the bridge for a ceremony, in which speakers hailed the event as a triumph over sectarianism. They celebrated with the ritual slaughter of a half dozen sheep.

“This bridge is the symbol of the true spirit and solidarity of the Iraqi people,” said Sheik Saleh al-Haidari, a Shi’ite community leader. “It is a day of joy for the Iraqi people because we have shown to the world that we are one united people.”

Iraq’s red, white and black national flag fluttered in the breeze from the bridge’s steel pillars. Banners reading “Yes to reconciliation and national unity” and “No to sectarianism and division” were hung from the railings.

“The reopening of this bridge is a clear sign of the improving security in Baghdad. It is an indication that desperate attempts by terrorists have failed and life is getting back to normal,” said military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi.

At the end of the ceremony, hundreds of Sunni Azamiyah residents crossed the bridge on foot to the Kazimiyah side, chanting “We protect Iraq with our blood” and “Sunnis and Shi’ites are brothers.”

“We are very happy to see the bridge of solidarity being reopened,” said Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabar, a Sunni who attended the ceremony. “This bridge sends a message that Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites are brothers and that sectarian strife is over.”

The reopening was the latest indication of improved security since U.S. and Iraqi forces routed Shi’ite militias last spring and thousands of Sunni insurgents broke with al Qaeda in Iraq.

Nevertheless, sectarian bitterness still lies beneath the surface, and the Iraqi army has placed checkpoints at the bridge to screen possible militants.

Tuesday’s bridge ceremony occurred a day after the deadliest attack in months in Baghdad killed 31 people and wounded 71 others, according to the Interior Ministry. The Iraqi army disputed the figure, saying five were killed and 37 wounded. It was not possible to reconcile the difference.

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