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Baghdad residents bridge sectarian gap to rail against corrupt politics

Anger at political class is overcoming sectarian divisions in two of Baghdad's long-divided Sunni and Shia districts
Musa al-Kazim mosque in Khadamiya (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

BAGHDAD - Al-Aimmah bridge divides the two districts of Khadamiya and Adamiya in northern Baghdad. The former is Shia and is the location of the shrine of Musa al-Kazim, named after the seventh Shia imam and a site for pilgrims across the world. The latter is Sunni, and for many years, following the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam, it was controlled by al-Qaeda.

The bridge itself was the site of a tragedy in 2005 - on 31 August, hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims began crossing the bridge towards the Musa al-Kazim shrine. Rumours began to spread that a suicide bomber was among the crowd. The pilgrims panicked and stampeded, leading to people being crushed to death and other throwing themselves into the Tigris. More than 900 people died in the disaster.

Calls went up from mosques on the Sunni side for aid and at least one Sunni, Othman Ali Abdul-Hafez, a  teenager, died while trying to help people drowning in the Tigris. But on the whole the incident was indicative of a breakdown in community relations as hardline religious sectarian groups, al-Qaeda on the one side, Iran-backed militias on the other, began to become dominant in the city. The two districts were divided by blast walls as sectarian violence enveloped the city.

One of my friends participated in one of the Sunnis' leaders' conferences and he said: 'You have to vote for me because we have to take over the government from the Shia.' This is not right. We want to live like one Iraqi people, in one country

- Haider Abu Ali, jeweller

More than 10 years later, and only a day before much-heralded parliamentary elections, residents of both communities are becoming increasingly sick of religious identity politics and a political class that exploits such divisions while lining their own pockets.

"I'm going to be lying if I say that I'm going to be voting tomorrow," said Qusai, 29, speaking to Middle East Eye at his sweet shop a short distance from the Musa al-Kazim shrine.

"I earn my money every day, so I cannot go to the polling station to give my vote to one of the corrupt politicians. I'd rather stay and earn my money here."

Qusai complained of a "lack of work opportunities", a complaint common to many in a country suffering from 15 percent unemployment, particularly among the young.

"I have to work every day here - if nobody buys something from me I cannot provide food for my family."

Streets vendors in Khadamiya (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Around the corner, in a shop where wealthier visitors to the shrine can buy gold jewellery, 45-year-old Haider Abu Ali was even more vehement that he would not be voting in Saturday's poll.

"In 15 years, we haven't had anything useful for the Iraqi people; right now, Iraq is ruled by corrupt officials and nobody has judged them, nobody has put them on trial," he railed.

"In 2003, my family gave our votes to support the new Iraqi constitution. When I gave my vote to back the new Iraqi government, I was hoping that something good was going to happen for us. Iraq would be more stable and the future would be better than before. Nothing happened or changed."

On the issue of sectarianism and hostility towards his Sunni neighbours, Abu Ali was clear that he had no problem with his neighbours across the bridge.

"As Iraqi people, we live in peace together, as Sunni and Shia. There is no difference between them. The problem comes from the leaders - the leaders incite their followers to sectarian sedition," he said.

"One of my friends participated in one of the Sunnis' leaders' conferences and he said: 'You have to vote for me because we have to take over the government from the Shia.' This is not right, he is spreading sectarianism between the people. We want to live like one Iraqi people, in one country."

'Sectarianism has vanished'

Statistics are not reliable for Iraqi elections, but few doubt that the Nasr Coalition, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, will emerge as the biggest party. Taking over the role from Nouri al-Maliki in 2014, Abadi led a successful campaign to defeat the Islamic State group (IS), took back areas of Iraq that had been captured by Kurdish militias, continuously promoted the need for Iraq to overcome sectarian divisions and instituted reforms to clamp down on corruption.

Although the effectiveness of his policies has been debatable, many Iraqi Sunnis believe that he has managed to undo much of the damage done by his predecessor.

For the first time since parliamentary democracy was introduced to the country, the Nasr Coalition is standing candidates in all 18 provinces of Iraq - including Kurdistan - coming from a wide range of backgrounds, including Christian, Sunni, Kurdish and Yazidi.

Abu Hanifa mosque, Adamiya (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

As they moved into the Abu Hanifa mosque for Friday prayers, Sunni residents of Adamiya told MEE the sectarianism of previous years had receded and that the main concern now was bread and butter issues such as corruption, security and unemployment.

Taha, 51, would not disclose who he planned to vote for, but he praised Abadi for breaking with the sectarianism of the Maliki years.

"When Maliki left the prime minister position, we felt the situation getting better. Maliki was arresting people according to their backgrounds, if they were Sunnis. After he was gotten rid of, we got Abadi, who was much better than Maliki."

I think sectarianism between local people has vanished. But I think it still exists between the politicians

- Zaid, Adamiya resident

He said that the mosque, which is located just at the bottom of the bridge into Khadamiya, had been heavily monitored and securitised during the Maliki years.

"We had large security perimetres here. They asked everybody going into the mosque, 'Where are you from?', 'Give me your ID', and this sort of thing," he explained.

"There is no more sectarianism here, people have started living together again."

When the elections are over on Saturday - and new electronic voting means the results could be in within hours - the long process of government-building will begin. In this context, whoever comes behind Abadi in the parliament could still be in the position of kingmaker.

And there is where the trouble lies.

A Sunni security guard in Adamiya shows his ink-stained finger after voting in early police and military poll (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

The two coalitions most widely tipped to come behind the Nasr Coalition are the Fatah Alliance, led by paramilitary commander Hadi al-Ameri, and the Sairoun Alliance, backed by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. 

The former is composed of members of the Hashd al-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilisation Units), Iran-backed groups that, while widely praised in Iraq for the fight against IS, have been accused of carrying out sectarian reprisals against Sunnis and supporting greater Iranian influence over Iraq.

And while Sadr has promoted a specifically anti-sectarian, anti-corruption platform, many Sunnis remember the violence meted out by his Mahdi army at the height of the sectarian fighting in Iraq.

"I think sectarianism between local people has vanished," said Zaid, 32, straining over the blaring call to prayer from the mosque.

"But I think it still exists between the politicians."

He said the prospect of the Fatah coalition holding power in Iraq was worrying.

"For sure. Their faith and loyalty is not for Iraq, it's for Iran."

Iraqis waking up

Along the rungs of al-Aimmah bridge, which is largely blocked off by steel sheets because of the presence of a sensitive military base nearby, Shia pilgrims have tied threads of green cloth bought from local vendors.

The principle of tying the cloth is wish fulfilment - many of them also tie a knot around the grilles outside Musa al-Kazim's shrine.

A piece of cloth tied by a Shia pilgrim asking for a wish to be fulfilled (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Iraq is facing, for the first time in many, many years, the prospect of relative peace and stability. The wish of many here is that the opportunity for a new Iraq is not squandered by politicians more interested in promoting divide-and-rule and lining their own pockets.

The Fifth Division military base, the former Saddam-era torture den shielded from view on the bridge, used to bear an inscription above its entrance that could serve as an apt metaphor for Iraqi politics: "Whoever gets in here is lost, whoever gets out is reborn."

Ali, a 16-year-old who works in a jeans shop in Khadamiya, said he hoped that things were changing, and that, although he was not old enough to vote in Saturday's elections, Iraqis would make the right choice.

"Right now, Iraqi people are starting to wake up and realise who is going to be good for them - if it's not good, we are going to make protests."