Page last updated at 06:09 GMT, Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Iraqi bridge to stability

Iraqi bridge
This bridge between two districts is symbolic of Baghdad's sectarian divisions

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

As Iraq goes to the polls, Gabriel Gatehouse looks at the fragile relationship between Sunni and Shia communities which holds the key to stability in Iraq.

Last time Iraq held parliamentary elections, in 2005, the poll was largely boycotted by Sunni Arab voters, a fact which contributed to years of vicious sectarian fighting.

Iraq is still plagued by almost daily violence but security has improved and resentment between Sunni and Shia communities has also eased.

Iraqi man, Khalid
I'll vote for whoever will provide security first and foremost. Then jobs and public services
Khalid, Shopkeeper

On the days when Khalid isn't working as a schoolteacher, to make ends meet, he runs a small electrical goods store in a predominantly Shia neighbourhood of Baghdad known as Kadhamiya.

Early in the morning he drags his supply of fridges, microwaves and air-conditioning units onto the pavement in front of his shop, hoping to attract customers.

"I'll vote for whoever will provide security first and foremost. Then jobs and public services," he said.

Baghdad is still a city plagued by bombings, kidnappings and shootings. But security has improved over the past two years.

As it does so, people in this neighbourhood are increasingly focusing on everyday problems such as unemployment and poor public services when deciding how to vote.

"How," Khalid asked, "am I supposed to run my business, when the electricity supply is so unreliable?"

Tale of two neighbourhoods

Across the Tigris from Kadhamiya is the Sunni Arab area of Adhamiya.

The bridge between the two neighbourhoods is symbolic of Baghdad's sectarian divisions. Until two years ago the bridge was closed. In any case, if a Shia had strayed into Adhamiya, they would most probably not have come out alive.

Iraqi man- Khalil Ibrahim
Sunnis can find jobs only in their dreams
Khalil Ibrahim, Stallholder

It is a mark of how much things have changed that today the traffic flows freely across the bridge and people from the two communities once again feel free to visit each other.

On the other side, we met Khalil Ibrahim, selling pickles, olives and cheese from a little stall. But Khalil wasn't always a stallholder. Until 2003 he was an officer in Saddam Hussein's army.

When it was disbanded by the Americans, he had to find other work.

"Since the fall of Saddam," he said, "there are no jobs. Three-quarters of our young people had to go to work as taxi drivers, or work in shops or...."

He cast his arm despondently over his own cart, to prove his point.

Like many Sunni Arabs, Khalil feels the new Shia dominated state-sector does not afford him equal opportunities.

"People here have tried to get government jobs, but they were rejected just because they are from Adhamiya.

"It has been like this since the invasion. Sunnis can find jobs only in their dreams," he told me.

As we stood chatting to Khalil, three young men were watching us intently from a discreet distance.

They were dressed in a motley mixture of different military uniforms. Each had a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder.

There were the Sahwa, members of the Awakening Councils, former insurgents who a few years ago were persuaded, with sums of money, to join forces with the government and US troops against al-Qaeda.

The youngest of the three was Mustafa Khalid. Just 20 years old, he was barely a teenager at the time of the US-led invasion in 2003.

Now he and his fellow militia members are responsible for keeping the peace here in Adhamiya.

We are here to protect our area, our families. Imagine if we pulled out. Imagine this street without us. All these shops would be robbed

Mustafa Khalid,

Awakening Council member

"About a month ago, someone threw a hand grenade at us from one of the alleyways here," he said.

But in general, Mustafa says security is much better now than it used to be.

The government wants to integrate these men into the regular army and police, but Mustafa says he and his friends haven't been paid for two months.

The question is: how long will they continue to do their jobs without pay?

"What else can we do? We are here to protect our area, our families. Imagine if we pulled out. Imagine this street without us. All these shops would be robbed.

"You guys wouldn't be able to come here and interview people if we weren't here," he said.

Security in Iraq is a relative concept. Despite the very tangible improvements, Baghdad remains a city where the threat of violence is an everyday reality.

Many hope that these elections will help Iraq to move beyond sectarian suspicion and resentment.

But much will depend on whether Sunni Arab communities like Adhamiya - which once fuelled Iraq's violent insurgency - feel included in the political process

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