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January 18, 2018

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25 killed at Iraq campaign rally for Shiite group

BAGHDAD — At least three explosions, including one by a suicide bomber, struck a campaign rally Friday for a militant Shiite group in Iraq's capital ahead of next week's parliamentary election, killing at least 25 people and wounding 28, authorities said.

The blasts struck as some 10,000 supporters of Asaib Ahl al-Haq gathered at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad for the rally of the Iranian-backed group. The afternoon event was organized to introduce the group's candidates for Wednesday's vote.

The blasts Friday highlight the sectarian violence that's plagued Iraq nearly three years after U.S. troops left the country, ending an eight-year presence that often served as a buffer between the nation's Shiite majority and its powerful Sunni Arab minority.

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.

Two Associated Press reporters were at the stadium when the blasts, spread over about 10 minutes, hit the complex. Intense gunfire rang out after the first blast and continued throughout. The source of the gunfire was not known, but it is not uncommon for Iraqi security forces to fire in the air in the aftermath of major 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 before it hurriedly flew away.

The first blast struck as men and women in colorful Arab medieval costumes were enacting a short play on the 7th century martyrdom in Karbala, Iraq, of the Shiites' most revered saint, Imam Hussein.

An AP driver said he was thrown back by the first explosion, then a second blast happened. He said guards around him began firing in all directions.

Another witness said he and friends rushed out of the stadium after the first explosion.

"I saw four charred bodies and several wounded people asking for help. There were also several damaged cars. Then, other blasts took place. People were in panic," said the witness, who gave his name as Abu Sajad.

The rally was earlier addressed by Sheik Qais al-Khazali, a young cleric who had 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," al-Khazali said. "Let it be known that Asaib will be the remedy."

Security guards jumped on al-Khazali when the first blast took place and pushed him away from the stadium. However, the group remained defiant after the attack.

"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."

Police and medical officials say the blasts killed at least 25 people and wounded 28. They said the first two blasts were caused by bombs, but the third was the work of a suicide bomber. Several of the wounded were in critical condition, said the officials, who 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 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 fighting in Syria.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for Friday's 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.

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

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