BAGHDAD — The Shiites approached the Aimma bridge from Baghdad's Shiite district of Kadhimiyah, and the Sunnis came from the Sunni side of Adhamiyah on Tuesday. When they met in the middle, they hugged and then cried over the waters of the Tigris River.
For three years no one had crossed the bridge, which was closed in 2005 after an infamous day when Shiite pilgrims panicked and stampeded after rumors broke out about a suicide bomber in their midst. More than 900 people died.
"We are all Muslims — Sunnis and Shiites," men chanted as they danced on the newly opened span. "We will not sell out this country."
The two neighborhoods were separated by blood for years. But on Tuesday, the blood on the bridge was in celebration. Two sheep were slaughtered in honor of the opening as a ritual sacrifice. The meat later was distributed to the poor.
Baghdad is still largely segregated by religious sect, and many people fear driving through neighborhoods of the other sect where they were once killed for being Shiite or Sunni. However, the bridge opening was taken as a message that Shiites and Sunnis could venture into each other's neighborhoods again.
On the Sunni side of the bridge in Adhamiyah, there's a graveyard for Sunnis who couldn't be buried in the Sunni cemetery in Abu Ghraib because the path led through an area controlled by Shiite militias. Until the Mahdi Army, a militia blamed for much of the sectarian killing, laid down their weapons earlier this year, no Sunni would walk through the silver market or visit the Shiite shrine in Kadhimiyah. Adhamiyah itself was controlled largely by Sunni extremists, and most Shiites didn't dare enter the neighborhood.
While the violence isn't over — dozens of civilians died in coordinated blasts in Adhamiyah Monday — the bridge opening was a message of hope that the worst of the bloodletting had passed.
The celebration began with a meeting of leading clergymen. Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafoor al Samarra'i, the head of the Sunni endowment — or religious establishment — came from the east bank of the Tigris River, where the shrine of Abu Hanifa al Noaman gleams on the skyline. On the west bank of the Tigris, where the golden dome of the holy shrine of Imam Moussa al Kadhim glitters on the horizon, a delegation of Shiites was led by the head of the Shiite endowment, Sayed Salih al Haidari.
"They tried to provoke strife and disagreements," Samarra'i said, referring to the insurgents and militia members. "But Iraqis will stay Iraqi."
Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the general in charge of security in Baghdad, recalled the day when nearly 1,000 people died on Aug. 31, 2005, in the same place he stood now.
"We should remember the honorable side, when the sons of Adhamiyah responded to save the lives of the drowning people, which led to the death of many martyrs," he said. "History immortalized their names with letters of light."
The bridge had been open for more than 50 years when the violence closed it. Abu Ahmed, 70, a Sunni, remembered the days when he rode his bike across the bridge to Kadhimiyah to eat pacha, a traditional Iraqi breakfast of boiled sheep head with bread soaked in the broth.
Ibrahim al Rawi, 33, wiped away tears Tuesday. His memory of walking across the bridge every day from Kadhimiyah was possible again.
"This bridge has all the memories of my childhood," he said.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY