BAGHDAD // In a symbolic gesture of unity, Iraqi authorities yesterday reopened a bridge linking Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods that had been closed since a 2005 stampede claimed nearly 1,000 lives - the single biggest loss of life in the Iraq war. The Imams Bridge spans the Tigris River and links the Sunni neighbourhood of Azamiyah - a former al Qa'eda stronghold - and the Shiite district of Kazimiyah, where Shiite militias once held sway. It has been closed since Aug 31 2005, when rumours of a suicide bomber panicked thousands of Shiite pilgrims walking to a religious shrine in Kazimiyah. Iraqi officials said nearly 1,000 people died, including those who dived into the river or were crushed in the stampede. The bridge remained closed ever since to prevent gunmen from using the span to launch attacks on the rival religious communities. Yesterday, however, hundreds of Shiites from Kazimiyah and Sunnis from Azamiyah hugged and kissed friends or strolled across to see a part of the city where they had feared to venture during the wave of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007. Government officials and clerics from the two Muslim sects gathered on the bridge for a ceremony, in which speakers hailed the event as a triumph over sectarianism. They 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 Sheikh 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. Banners reading "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 military spokesman Maj Gen Qassim al Moussawi. At the end of yesterday'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."