A series of bombs exploded Friday at a campaign rally for a Shia group in Iraq's capital ahead of the country's parliamentary elections, killing at least 28 and wounding over 40, authorities said.
The explosions struck as about 10,000 people had gathered at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad for a Asaib Ahl al-Haq rally. The group had planned to use the event to announce its candidates for Iraq's parliamentary elections, set for Wednesday.
Al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on the Internet.
The group claimed it had carried out the bombings in response to "murder, torture and displacement" of Sunnis by Shia militias which "massacred children and women."
The sound of intense gunfire followed the blasts. Attendees fled to a nearby building under construction in the stadium complex, as some parliamentary candidates screamed.
Police and medical officials said that several of the wounded were in critical condition. They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to release 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 militants holding two cities in Anbar province.
Security guards jumped on al-Khazali and pushed him away from the stadium after the blasts.
The latest attacks highlight the 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 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.
Sunnis have gathered in Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi, for a year-long sit-in to protest their exclusion from the political process by the Shia-led central government. They claim they are being unfairly treated by the Shia-dominated security forces.
Maliki compares the camp to an Al-Qaeda headquarters and had recently ordered security forces to break up the sit-in. This attempt has led to fighting between security forces and local fighters — among them elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups.
ISIL other Sunni fighters frequently employ car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the Shia-led government and target Shia groups.
More than 9,000 candidates are taking part in Wednesday's elections and will vie for 328 seats in parliament. Parts of Sunni-dominated Anbar province won't take part in the elections due to the clashes there between security forces and Al-Qaeda-inspired militants.
The Associated Press