Iraqi Shi'ite and Kurdish government leaders met briefly with Sunni leaders Tuesday evening near a bridge in the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiya in a show of unity between the communities. The meeting took place seven days after an incident, believed to have been a deadly stampede, killed several hundred mostly Shi'ite pilgrims heading to a shrine across the Tigris River.
Despite pleas from Iraq's Shi'ite National Security Adviser, Mowafak al-Rubaie, to open the A'Imma Bridge to hold a mass candlelight vigil Friday night, the U.S. military kept the bridge closed and closely guarded it from both sides to avoid a repeat of what happened August 31.
According to reports by various Iraqi ministries, nearly one thousand people perished on the bridge that day, following a stampede triggered by rumors of a suicide bomber hiding among the crowd.
Scrapping plans for a vigil to commemorate the seventh day of the tragedy, Mr. Rubaie, a Shi'ite, instead led a heavily guarded government delegation on foot across the bridge from the neighboring Shi'ite district of Kadhimiya to Adhamiya to meet local Sunni leaders.
The national security adviser said the gesture was to show Sunni extremists, whom he blames for the deaths of the Shi'ite pilgrims, that the incident has worked to unify, not further divide, the two bitterly opposed religious communities.
"They are trying to drive a wedge and trigger a civil war in this country," he said. "I think they failed miserably in their attempt because the Iraqi people, their awareness, is sky-high and I'm proud of these people, honestly. These people have shown us what is the meaning of the Iraqi people."
As a Sunni cleric preached religious tolerance and forgiveness at the Imam al-Hatham mosque, near the bridge in Adhamiya, Mr. Rubaie and his delegation were warmly greeted by the most powerful local Sunni sheik, Moyaad al-Adhami, and hundreds of Sunni residents. Many of the residents said that they had come out to show sympathy and solidarity with their Shi'ite Muslim brothers.
After a brief meeting with Sheik Adhami and several other Sunni leaders, a Kurdish member of the delegation, Iraqi Minister of Municipalities Nisreen Berwari told VOA that she believes a new level of understanding and cooperation among all Iraqis has developed in the wake of the bridge tragedy. "The Sunni community received us with great grace and appreciation. They reassured us all on how united the Iraqi society is and how each side of the bridge is united. Iraqis are grieving together, but also building on what happened," he said.
Tension between Iraq's long-oppresed Shi'ite majority and their former rulers, the Sunni Arabs, had been rising in recent months amid a string of murders, assassinations, and tit-for-tat killings.
But there has been growing optimism in recent days that the tragedy could act as a catalyst for true reconciliation between the two religious communities.
It is still not clear what exactly happened August 31 that led to the deaths of the Shi'ite pilgrims. The incident is currently being investigated by both the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior.
There is also skepticism about the final death toll, which some Iraqi military leaders and politicians have called grossly exaggerated.
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