11 killed at Iraq campaign rally for Shiite group

HAMZA HENDAWI Associated Press Published:

BAGHDAD (AP) -- A series of bombs exploded Friday at a campaign rally for a Shiite group in Iraq's capital ahead of the country's parliamentary election, killing at least 11 people and wounding 23, authorities said.

The explosions struck as some 10,000 people had gathered at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq rally, in which the Shiite group planned to announce its candidates for Iraq's parliamentary election Wednesday.

An Associated Press reporter at the rally heard intense gunfire follow the blasts. Attendees fled to a nearby building under construction in the stadium complex as female parliamentary candidates screamed.

Police and medical officials say the blasts killed at least 11 people and wounded 23. They said several of the wounded were in critical condition. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't 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.

Its leader, Sheik Qais al-Khazali, spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government. At the rally Friday, he gave a brief address that challenged the Sunni militants holding two cities in Anbar province.

Security guards jumped on al-Khazali and pushed him away from the stadium after the blasts.

The blasts Friday highlight the sectarian violence that's 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 and 2008. The United Nations 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.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, though an al-Qaida spin-off group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant uses similar tactics. The group and other Sunni militants frequently use car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government and target Shiite groups.

More than 9,000 candidates are taking part in Wednesday's elections and will vie for 328 seats in parliament. Parts of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province won't take part in the election due the clashes there between security forces and al-Qaida-inspired militants.

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Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.