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.
It said on a militant website that the bombings were to avenge what it called the killing of Sunnis and their forced removal from their homes by Shiite militias.
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 country’s death toll climbed to its highest levels since the sectarian bloodshed between 2006 and 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 because of clashes there between security forces and al-Qaida-inspired militants.
The bombings at the heavily guarded stadium struck about 10 minutes apart, according to two Associated Press reporters at the rally.
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.
This is a desperate act that will not stop us from moving on and challenging the Sunni militants, said a senior Ahl al-Haq official, Wahab al-Taie. They wanted to send us a message and they did, but that will not deter us.
A top intelligence officer and security officials said a senior Sunni politician was shot and killed Friday night in what appeared to be a revenge attack.