Baghdad's Bridge Over Troubled Water

Sunni and Shia neighbours welcome reopening of symbolic bridge after notorious stampede.

Baghdad's Bridge Over Troubled Water

Sunni and Shia neighbours welcome reopening of symbolic bridge after notorious stampede.

Omar Jasim never thought he would again cross the bridge near his home where some 1,000 people died on a single August day in 2005.



Baghdad's Al-Aima bridge was sealed off after a Shia religious procession broke down in a stampede, sparked by rumours of a suicide bomber.



Hundreds of pilgrims were crushed. Others fell to their deaths, drowning in the River Tigris below.



Earlier this month, the bridge was reopened to pedestrians, linking once again the largely Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya with Shia-dominated Kadhimiya.



For 30-year-old Jasim, a trader who lives in Adhamiya but spent much of his childhood in Kadhimiya, the revival of the link shows life in the capital is returning to normal.



"Security has improved," he said. "Gun culture and sectarianism are disappearing."



While the bridge was closed, it was a symbol for Jasim of the sectarian strife that has killed thousands in Baghdad – including his brother in 2007.



"The bridge was deserted and the two neighbourhoods that were only metres apart seemed like two separate states," he said.



NEIGHBOURLY BONDS



The Al-Aima stampede was the single bloodiest incident Iraq has seen since the United States-led invasion in 2003.



The Shia procession, heading to the shrine of Imam Musa Al-Kadhim, had already been targeted that day by mortars, killing 16 people. Fear of another similar attack fuelled the panic that spilled over into the stampede.



The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed he had instigated the incident. The Jordanian-born militant was well known for urging his Sunni followers to attack Iraqi Shia, whom he had labeled apostates and allies of the Americans.



Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike in 2006. Recently, Iraq's sectarian conflict appears to have ebbed – the result of a US troop surge, the empowerment of armed Sunni groups opposed to al-Qaeda and Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to halt attacks by his militia on Iraqi and US forces.



Jiwad Muhsin, a local council worker in Kadhimiya, said the reopening of the Al-Aima bridge shows Baghdad is ready for reconciliation.



"The sectarian segregation imposed on Baghdad is gradually beginning to dispel," he told IWPR while attending a ceremony for the reopening of the bridge. "Members of the two communities are fed up with the extremists and prefer to lead normal lives, as before."



The 44-year-old recalls how residents of Kadhimiya often traveled to Adhamiya to enjoy its teahouses and on occasion, even to drink alcohol.



"The people of Adhamiya are known for being secular and hospitable," he said.



Muhsin said tensions between the neighbouring communities were stoked by the arrival of armed men from other parts of the city.



Kadhimiya, he says, played host to Shia fighters from the Sadr City and Shuala districts, while Adhamiya hosted armed men from Amiriya and Hai Al-Amil.



SENSITIVE POLICING



The Iraqi army's top commander in Baghdad, Lieutenant- General Abud Qanbar, said improvements in security over the last year have made it possible to reopen the bridge.



He also praised Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods on either side of the bridge for their eagerness to engage again with each other.



"The [reopened] bridge sends an important message to the extremists: that they failed to split the two most important areas of Baghdad," Qanbar said.



Adhamiya and Kadhimiya were linked before World War II by a "floating" bridge supported on boats.



The pontoon was dismantled during the war. In 1957, a British company constructed the modern Al-Aima bridge. It was renovated for its recent reopening, with checkpoints erected at either end.



An Iraqi army major, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR tight security was necessary as the bridge remained a target for attack.



"We are here to restore people's faith in the bridge," the major said.



The security forces have been instructed not to check the papers of all passersby unless they have good reason to do so – identity remains a sensitive issue in the area.



COMMERCIAL ARTERY



Local leaders have expressed optimism at the reopening of the bridge.



"Both areas share family ties that cannot be terminated by extremists carrying out killings," said Sabah al-Ubaidi, the head of the Adhamiya Sheikhs Council.



The imam of the Abu-Hanifa Al-Numan mosque in Adhamiya, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Al-Adhami, said the death of so many Shia in the stampede could have sparked a sectarian conflict.



But, he says, Zarqawi's claim of responsibility in effect prevented this by revealing the stampede to be work of al-Qaeda – rather than Adhamiya's Sunni.



The reopened bridge, says the imam, was the first step in rebuilding what he described as the "Iraqi fraternity".



Local businesses on both sides echo the cleric's enthusiasm, with hopes that the reopened bridge will revive commercial links.



Ali al-Muhammadawi, the owner of a cosmetics store in Kadhimiya, said the wealthy residents of Adhamiya used to shop and invest in his neighbourhood.



Omar Alwan, the owner of a fashion business in Adhamiya, says he was forced to close his store because of the closure of the bridge.



"The people of Kadhimiya always came to Adhamiya to buy goods with the best trademarks," he said.



Amjad al-Bassam, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said Al-Aima has put its bloody past behind it.



"The reopening of the bridge means there is no division among the people of the same homeland," he said.



"We are all Iraqis and we have lived in this country for centuries."



The bridge's official title itself reflects a compromise between the neighbouring sects.



Adhamiya and Kadhimiya take their names from shrines holy to the Sunni and Shia respectively.



Sunni had originally wanted to name the bridge Al-Adham because of its proximity to the shrine of Imam Abu-Hanifa al-Numan, also known as Imam Al-Adham. The Shia insisted that the new bridge be named Al-Kadhim, because it was close to the shrine of Imam al-Kadhim.



They agreed in the end to call it simply Al-Aima bridge – the bridge of the imams.



Shawkat al-Bayati is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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