BAGHDAD: The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for twin bombings at a Shiite political party’s election rally in Baghdad which killed 28 people Friday, just days before parliamentary elections.
“Abu Aisha al-Iraqi and Abu Osama al-Iraqi … managed to enter a gathering of infidels … during their parade in Sadr City and blew up their suicide belts,” said the statement attributed to ISIS.
The statement derisively referred to the group targeted, the political wing of the Asaib Ahel al-Haq (League of the Righteous) militia, as the League of the Vain.
It said the attack was carried out “in revenge for what the Safavid militias are doing in Iraq and Sham [the Levant], killing and torturing and displacing Sunnis,” using a pejorative term for Iraq’s Shiite majority, linking it to the Safavid empire that once ruled neighboring Iran.
A car bomb explosion followed by a suicide attack hit the campaign rally for the Saadiqun bloc, the political wing of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan said.
The explosions struck as some 10,000 supporters of Asaib Ahl al-Haq gathered at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad for the Iranian-backed group’s rally. The afternoon event was organized to introduce the group’s candidates for Wednesday’s vote.
Two Associated Press reporters were at the stadium when the blasts, spread over about 10 minutes, hit the complex. Gunfire rang out after the first blast and continued throughout. The source of the gunfire was unknown, but it is not uncommon for Iraqi security forces to fire in the air in the aftermath of terror attacks.
Attendees fled to a nearby building under construction in the stadium complex, as female parliamentary candidates screamed and prayed for safety.
Others ran out of the stadium in the chaos. Adding to the panic was the appearance overhead of a low-flying small aircraft that dropped election flyers from above.
The first blast struck as men and women in Arab medieval costumes were enacting a short play on the seventh-century martyrdom in Karbala, Iraq, of Hussein, the Shiites’ most revered imam.
The rally was earlier addressed by Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, a young cleric who spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government. In his speech, he challenged the Sunni militants holding parts of two cities in the mainly Sunni Anbar province.
“We are ready and prepared to defend this nation,” Khazali said. “Let it be known that Asaib will be the remedy.”
Police and medical officials said at least 25 were wounded in addition to the 28 killed, several of whom were in critical condition. They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to release the information.
Followers of Asaib Ahl al-Haq carried out deadly attacks against U.S. troops before their withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and claimed responsibility for the 2007 kidnapping of a British contractor along with his four guards.
The group is backed by Iran and says it is sending fighters to Syria to join forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. The top of the Baghdad stadium’s terraces was adorned by images of Asaib Ahl al-Haq fighters killed in the conflict in Syria.
Security guards jumped on Khazali when the first bomb exploded and rushed him away from the stadium.
The blasts highlight the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq recently. Last year, the death toll in the country climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the country’s sectarian bloodletting between 2006-08.
The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and more than 1,400 people were killed in the first two months of this year alone.