Idle Bridge a Symbol of Baghdad's Sectarian Divide Despite security improvements in Baghdad, wounds are hard to heal, and fears of more sectarian bloodshed remain. Two years ago, as thousands of Shiite pilgrims crossed the bridge over the Tigris River, gunfire sparked panic and a stampede that killed more than 900 people. The bridge has been closed since then.
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Idle Bridge a Symbol of Baghdad's Sectarian Divide

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Idle Bridge a Symbol of Baghdad's Sectarian Divide

Idle Bridge a Symbol of Baghdad's Sectarian Divide

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Turning to Iraq now, where there have been big security improvements over the past year. But old wounds are hard to heal, and fears of fresh sectarian bloodshed persist.

In one part of Baghdad, a bridge spanning the Tigris River marks an especially fragile fault line. It links Sunni and Shiite areas, both with important religious shrines. Two years ago, more than 900 Shiite pilgrims were killed on that bridge in a stampede prompted by rumors of a suicide bomber. The bridge has been closed since then.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports that residents on both sides are debating whether it should now be reopened.

ANNE GARRELS: In the Sunni neighborhood of Adamiya, blast walls and barbed wire line the streets. Houses are pockmarked with bullet holes, the scars of recent terror when bodies were regularly dumped here.

Fifty-five-year-old Kulud al-Dayini(ph) lights a cigarette, one of her only pleasures. She had to quit her job as a magazine editor because the commute was simply too dangerous. She's still not working. Kulud fears Shiite militias, but she says fellow Sunnis in the form of extremist groups, like al-Qaida, were just as bad. Her two nephews were kidnapped last year by Sunni gangs and haven't been seen since. She's encouraged, though, that the new U.S.-backed Sunni militias from a movement known as the Awakening are now standing up to all extremist groups in their midst.

Ms. KULUD AL-DAYINI (Sunni): (Through translator) Al-Qaida and others like them killed everyone. They didn't spare Sunnis or Shiite in their desire to build their version of an Islamic state.

GARRELS: Peace here is still fragile, but Kulud thinks security is good enough to open the Imam's(ph) bridge with the Shiite area of Khadamiya across the river.

Ms. AL-DAYINI: (Through translator) Of course, we're so afraid of shadowy groups behind the scenes who want to stoke sectarian violence. But opening the bridge would boost trade and help people make a living.

GARRELS: Mahmud(ph), a stylish young man sells food in the small Adamiya shop he recently reopened. He, too, credits the Awakening groups with helping to secure Adamiya. He says the Shiite-led government is just plain wrong when it says the Sunni militias are a cover for insurgence.

MAHMUD (Sunni): (Through translator) In the beginning, there were some bad people who joined up - true. But they have been weeded out. The terrorist groups have completely lost the trust of the people who now hate what they did to our city.

GARRELS: But Mahmud thinks it's still too early to open the bridge. For him, it remains a symbol of fear. He'd like nothing more than to make the quick trip across the bridge to buy supplies instead of making a long detour to other markets. But he worries Shiite and Sunni extremists would also use the opening to race across and strike again, leading to another explosion of tit-for-tat killings.

Thirteen-year-old Bakar al-Razaq(ph) flipped through his Arabic language homework. He's finally back in school. He has many Shiite pals there, where teachers will not permit any sectarian fights. But he says he's still afraid of the Shiite militias and the predominantly Shiite police who joined them in killing Sunnis. He doesn't want them in Adamiya, and he doesn't want the bridge opened yet.

Mr. BAKAR AL-RAZAQ (Sunni student): (Through translator) When they entered Adamiya, the police treat us like the enemy. They kill, beat, and then sold people. We can only think about opening the bridge when security is better.

GARRELS: The empty bridge has become a symbol of the contest between the contradictory impulses competing to determine Iraq's future, the tensions between Iraq's two main religious groups and the common national culture, which in spite of everything, still has some power to bind Iraqis together.

(Soundbite of street music)

While the streets of Sunni Adamiya were quiet this weekend, just a few hundred feet away across the bridge in Khadamiya, thousands reenacted the death of one of the most revered Shiite saints. Reflecting on the violence that's ripped his city apart, Aymad Razaq(ph), a Shiite tailor, says it was a mistake for the Shiite-led government to stack the police with an overwhelming number of Shiites.

Mr. AYMAD RAZAQ (Shiite tailor): (Through translator) Security forces must include people from all sects in order to coexist. In the past, Sunnis and Shiites aid and fought together. After Saddam, the way the security forces were created was wrong.

GARRELS: It's coming from a devout Shiite. Aymad set up a tent to feed the Shiite pilgrims, relieved there was no violence this year. The emotional display of mourning for the murder of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, 13 centuries ago marks the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over who is the true heir to Mohammed. And these public processions banned under Saddam are dramatic sign of Shiite ascendancy in today's Iraq. Aymad can understand how some Sunnis are threatened by this, but he says he and his friends bears Sunni's no ill will. He wants the bridge opened so people can easily visit one another again as they used to. He says it must be a bridge of trust.

Mr. RAZAQ: (Through translator) Sunnis had shown they don't support al-Qaida, so I don't think the violence will resume as it once did. And we need the bridge to build that trust again. It was an important trading link to the city. At the heart of the problem now is the economy. If the government would only attend to the economy, I think 99 percent of this terrorism would go away.

GARRELS: Today, Mahdi(ph), a Shiite policeman, guards a checkpoint by the bridge. Over the past nine months, he says Iraqi security forces have become a lot more even-handed.

MAHDI (Shiite policeman): (Through Translator) Ministry of Interior forces in the past has behaved badly in Adamiya. But now, we work for Iraq, just for Iraq, away from sectarian battles and militia.

(Soundbite of unidentified man singing in foreign language)

GARRELS: These kinds of comments were rare just a few months ago. Even more extraordinary, the Shiite policeman says he grieved with Sunnis when the head of the Awakening in the west of the country was assassinated late last year. He thinks security is good enough for the bridge to reopen. He would like to enjoy again the delicious food in Adamiya and he says he is ready to welcome Sunnis who want to eat bazha(ph), a traditional dish of boiled goat's head here in Khadamiya.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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