The Shiites approached the Imams Bridge from Baghdad's Shiite district of Kazimiyah, and the Sunnis came from the Sunni side of Azamiyah 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 Tuesday 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 was later 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 Azamiyah, 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 Kazimiyah. Azamiyah 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 Azamiyah on Monday – the bridge opening was a message of hope that the worst had passed.