BAGHDAD – Suicide bombers killed 31 people Friday at a sports stadium hosting a campaign rally for thousands of supporters of a militant Shiite group before parliamentary elections, authorities said – an attack that could unleash more sectarian violence.
An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for the attack at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad, which drew about 10,000 backers of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq group.
The attack was a stark reminder of the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq more than two years after U.S. troops ended an eight-year presence that often served as a buffer between the nation’s Shiite majority and its Sunni Arab minority.
Last year, the death toll in the country climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian bloodshed from 2006 to 2008. 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.
The rally was organized to introduce the group’s candidates for Wednesday’s vote. More than 9,000 candidates are taking part and will vie for 328 seats in parliament. Parts of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province won’t take part in the election due to the clashes there between security forces and al-Qaida-inspired militants.
A top intelligence officer and security officials said a senior Sunni politician in the southern city of Basra, Abdul-Kareem al-Dussary, was shot and killed Friday night in what appeared to be a revenge attack for the Baghdad bombings. The officer and the officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The resurgence of sectarian violence is in part a reflection of the 3-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, where forces loyal to President Bashar Assad are battling mostly Sunni rebels whose ranks are dominated by Islamists or militants from al-Qaida-inspired or -linked groups. Assad follows the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Syria to join Assad’s side in the civil war.
The bombings at the heavily guarded stadium struck about 10 minutes apart, according to two Associated Press reporters at the rally.
Intense gunfire rang out after the first explosion and continued throughout, but it is not uncommon for Iraqi security forces to fire in the air after major attacks.
Some in the crowd fled to a nearby building under construction in the complex as female parliamentary candidates screamed and prayed for safety. Others ran from the stadium or took refuge behind the large stage erected for the rally.
Adding to the panic was the appearance overhead of a low-flying small aircraft that dropped election pamphlets.