Hundreds of people joined Iraqi officials on Tuesday in reopening a major bridge linking Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad — a further sign of improving security in the Iraqi capital.
Still, the relative calm in Baghdad remains tenuous, and scattered attacks occur almost daily. A pair of roadside bombs exploded in quick succession in east Baghdad during the Tuesday morning rush hour, killing three people and wounding 14 others, police and hospital officials said.
The Imams Bridge in north Baghdad was barricaded shut three years ago following a deadly stampede during a Shiite procession that killed almost 1,000 people. The bridge remained closed during the sectarian bloodletting that plagued the city in 2006 and 2007.
But U.S. and Iraqi security forces have grabbed the upper hand against extremists in recent months, contributing to a general drop in violence in the capital. Those gains have allowed officials to replace sealed barricades on the bridge with checkpoints and reopen the east-west artery in north Baghdad.
Sunnis, Shiites and government officials hailed the event as a triumph over sectarianism and celebrated with the ritual slaughter of a half-dozen sheep.
"This bridge is the symbol of the true spirit and solidarity of the Iraqi people," said Sheik Saleh al-Haidari, a Shiite community leader. "It is a day of joy for the Iraqi people because we have shown to the world that we are one united people."
Iraq's red, white and black national flag fluttered in the breeze from the bridge's steel pillars, while banners saying "Yes to reconciliation and national unity" and "No to sectarianism and division" were festooned from the railings.
"The reopening of this bridge is a clear sign of the improving security in Baghdad. It is an indication that desperate attempts by terrorists have failed and life is getting back to normal," said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a senior spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad.
Frantic pilgrims crushed
The stampede during a religious festival that closed the bridge three years ago was sparked by rumors that a suicide bomber was about to strike. Frantic pilgrims were crushed trying to escape the rumored attack.
That incident sparked intense mistrust between the neighborhoods connected by the bridge — the Shiite quarter of Kazimiyah on the west bank and the Sunni district of Azamiyah on the east.
At the end of Tuesday's ceremony, hundreds of Sunni Azamiyah residents crossed the bridge on foot to the Kazimiyah side, chanting "We protect Iraq with our blood" and "Sunnis and Shiites are brothers."
"We are very happy to see the bridge of solidarity being reopened," said Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabar, a Sunni who attended the ceremony. "This bridge sends a message that Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites are brothers and that sectarian strife is over."
But tension lingers, and insurgents still pose a threat and remain determined to battle the U.S.-backed government.
Early Tuesday, twin blasts hit a truck delivering newspapers and a line of newspaper vendors waiting nearby to collect the papers to supply neighborhood newsstands in east Baghdad, police said.
It was not immediately clear how many people were killed in each blast, but police and hospital officials said the total number of dead was three and that 14 were wounded.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
Tuesday's bombings come a day after the deadliest attack in Baghdad in months — also during the morning rush hour — killed 31 people and wounded 71 others. In that attack, a suicide bomber struck a crowd that rushed to help schoolgirls trapped in a bus hit moments earlier by a roadside bomb.
Despite the security gains in recent months, there appears to have been an uptick in small-scale bombings in the past week during the morning rush hour in an apparent attempt to undermine public confidence. Many of the attacks have targeted Iraqi police and army patrols, government officials heading to work and commuters.