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Baghdad bridge re-links Sunni and Shia

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-12

With hopes of bridging the sectarian divide, the authorities have reopened a bridge linking Sunni and Shiite districts that has been closed since 2005, when nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims were killed in a stampede.

Authorities in Baghdad on Tuesday opened a major bridge linking historic Sunni and Shiite districts that was closed in 2005 after nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims perished in a deadly stampede.

The move is expected to help repair the deep sectarian divisions that have plagued the city since the eruption of Sunni-Shiite violence in 2006 and ease traffic in the bustling capital.

Hundreds of people, including Shiite and Sunni clerics and other Iraqi officials, walked across the bridge spanning the Tigris river hugging and kissing cheeks in a show of national unity.

The Al-Aima (Imams) bridge links the centuries-old neighbourhoods of Kadhimiyah and Adhamiyah, the former named for a revered Shiite shrine and the latter built around the tomb of a famed Sunni lawmaker.

"Today is a historical day for us. We want to visit our friends. We have missed them, and haven't been able to visit them for three years." said Ali Abdel Hussein as he walked across the bridge from his home in Kadhimiyah.

Azhar al-Qaisi, a 41-year-old civil servant living in Adhamiyah, said he wished the bridge had been opened sooner.

"The relationship between the two sides is not a relationship of one or two years but of our whole lives," he said. "Opening the bridge today will remove the psychological barrier."

After the opening Shiites and Sunnis gathered for prayers together at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiyah, the shrine of the eighth century founder of one of the four main Sunni schools of Islamic law that two years ago was turned into a fortress by Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"The opening of the bridge is a hope for the future and a victory for the will of the Iraqi people," Moain al-Kadhimi, head of Baghdad's city council, told AFP.

"It is a message for Baghdad citizens to encourage national reconciliation and it is a message to the terrorists that there is a determination to open all the roads and bridges despite the challenges."

Dozens of Iraqi officials gathered for the opening amid tight security provided by US and Iraqi troops as Iraqi flags hung from the pillars of the bridge rippled in the autumn beeze.

The army removed the concrete barriers at both ends of the bridge and replaced them with checkpoints. Iraqi national police will inspect vehicles coming from both directions.

"The opening of this bridge is proof to the world that Iraqis are one people and one body," Salih al-Haidari, the head of Iraq's Shiite religious endowments, told the gathering.

Ahmed al-Samarraie, the head of Sunni endowments, agreed. "We are one body despite the desire of the criminals to create fitna (sectarian discord)," he said. "In spite of their desire to make conflicts the Iraqi remains an Iraqi."

The bridge was closed after a deadly stampede on August 31, 2005 during a festival attended by tens of thousands of pilgrims marking the death of revered Shiite Imam Musa Kadhim 12 centuries ago.

A mortar attack and rumours of a suicide bomber among the crowd sparked the tragedy, the deadliest to hit Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003.

The reopening comes amid dramatic improvements in security in the capital, where tens of thousands of US and Iraqi forces have largely routed the sectarian militias and insurgents that once ruled large swathes of the city.

However, the fragility of the calm was underscored Monday by a triple bombing in a market in Adhamiyah that killed 28 people in the deadliest Baghdad attack since June.

"Those who still imagine they can break the will of our people with bombs and suicide vests, we tell them to get out," General Abud Qanbar, the head of the Baghdad security plan, told the gathering.

"Our people want to return to a normal life and to see smiles on their children's faces."

Date created : 2008-11-11