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Page last updated at 18:39 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Baghdad re-opens 'unity bridge'

Ahmed al-Samarraie, head of Sunni endowments and Salih al-Haidari, the head of Shia religious endowments greet on Imams Bridge
The meeting of Sunni and Shia sheikhs from neighbouring districts is hugely symbolic

The authorities in Baghdad have held a ceremony to re-open a major bridge linking Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods on opposite banks of the River Tigris.

Hundreds crossed the Imams Bridge after Muslim leaders and security officials walked from each bank and embraced.

The bridge was closed in 2005 following a stampede of Shia pilgrims in which about 1,000 people died.

The carnage was caused by widespread panic after rumours spread that a suicide bomber was about to attack.

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For the re-opening ceremony, Iraqi flags flew from the steel pillars of the bridge and banners were festooned along the railings saying "Yes to reconciliation and national unity" and "No to sectarianism and division".

"This bridge is the symbol of the true spirit and solidarity of the Iraqi people," said Sheikh Saleh al-Haidari, a religious leader from the Shia district of Kadhimiya, on the west bank of the Tigris.

"It is a day of joy for the Iraqi people because we have shown to the world that we are one united people," he added.

Highest death toll

It is not clear if the bridge, which links Kadhimiya to the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya, will be opened to all traffic in the future, but officials said the opening for pedestrians was a sign of improving security.

Bridge disaster

The bridge - called al-Aima in Arabic - links eastern Baghdad's large Shia community in places like Sadr City to the important Imam Musa Kadhim shrine that gives Kadhimiya its name. Before the closure the bridge would often be packed with pilgrims.

Security was tight for Tuesday's formal reopening ceremony, provided by US and Iraqi troops. High screens have shielded people on the bridge from view since the early days of post-war sectarian violence.

The 2005 tragedy, triggered by a mortar strike and rumours that a suicide bomber was among the crowd, was the deadliest incident to hit Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Security improvements in recent months have also led to the removal of some high concrete walls put up to separate Shia and Sunni districts of the capital.

However, Baghdad has been hit by a series of smaller-scale bomb attacks in recent weeks, often targeting traffic in the morning rush hour.

Tuesday was no exception, with at least three people killed. On Monday, nearly 30 people died in a multiple bombing in a Shia district of the capital.

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