Bridging the sectarian divide

Doubts linger over plans to reopen Baghdad link between Sunni and Shia communities.

    The Bridge of the Imams was closed in 2005 after almost 1,000 people died in a stampede


    Al-Kadhimiyah is the Shia Muslim heart of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris river. Home to the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, it is a place of pilgrimage for millions around this time of the year when they commemorate the death of al-Hussein, their most venerated imam, in the Islamic month of Muharram. 

    Across the river is the predominantly Sunni district of Adhimiyah and the shrine of Abu Hanifa al-Numan, a leading figure of Sunni Islam.

    For decades, the two ancient districts were linked by a 270-metre-long bridge.

    "It's called the Bridge of the Imams, they didn't choose one name over the other. They chose this name in respect towards both holy men," Nagui Mohamed Abdel Hussein, a lawyer, said.

    "The bridge is the economic and religious lifeline of the district, everything went through it. Food, supplies, people. It linked two holy districts."

    The bridge was closed in 2005 after almost 1,000 Shia pilgrims were killed in a stampede sparked by rumours that a suicide bomber was among the crowd.

    Cross-river attacks

    The government has kept it shut ever since to avoid cross-river attacks. The Associated Press news agency estimates that in 2007 alone, at least 81 people were killed in Adhimiyah and at least 54 in Kadhimiyah despite the closure.

    But now there is enough security for the bridge to be reopened, according to Brigadier Qassim al-Moussawi, a senior Iraqi military spokesman.

    If they open the bridge there will be
    no security"
    US commanders have suggested that checkpoints could be set up for pedestrians to use the bridge if the security situation remains stable.

    Oddly enough, Sunni Adhimiyah is located in the Shia-dominated eastern bank of the Tigris known as Rusafah, while Kadhimiyah is in Karkh, the mainly Sunni part of the Iraqi capital on the western bank.

    For the past two years, the residents of these two districts have been living in sectarian bubbles and reopening the bridge is absolutely essential to bring back some sort of normality. However, many fear it could also bring a lot of trouble.

    Adhimiyah sealed off

    Adhimiyah has become a ghost town surrounded by a concrete wall that seals it off from its Shia surroundings. Most of the roads around it are blocked.

    The al-Qaeda in Iraq group has been chased out of the area by local residents, who now patrol the district.

    Still they say it is too early for the bridge to re-open, the wounds are still fresh.

    "If they open the bridge there will be no security," a resident said.

    "We would like the bridge to open so we can get goods, go to work, but better to keep it shut at the moment. We also need to see the goodwill from the other side."

    At two recent local meetings in Adhamiya, Sunni community leaders said they would physically block the bridge's entrance if the government reopened it.

    They said that they feared Shia militias, with the tacit consent of the security forces who are expected to secure the bridge, would exploit the link to conduct attacks.

    "There are still trouble makers on both sides," Daoud al-Azami, a local Sunni council official, told Associated Press. "There are fears if the bridge isn't properly controlled, there is a possibility for both sides to exploit this."

    Such sentiments hinder the Iraqi government's efforts as it tries to achieve national reconciliation by lifting measures that have helped improve security but made daily life so difficult.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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