We were waiting for the horses when the first explosion hit — a giant thud in the parking lot of a stadium full of Shiite faithful watching a re-enactment of the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein.
Iraqis have become used to the distant sound of cars exploding. This one was so close it sent thousands of people, in what is normally a football field, running in panic. Gunfire crackled in the air as I wondered whether we were more at risk of being shot or trampled.
We had come to cover a campaign rally by Asaib Ahel al-Haq, the League of the Righteous, a group few people outside Iraq would have heard of, but one with enormous implications for the country.
Its leader, Qais al-Khazali, spent more than two years in U.S. detention, believed by the U.S. to have organized and ordered the killing of five American soldiers in Karbala in 2007. He and other leaders of the Iranian-backed militant group were later released in what was believed to be a swap for a captured British contractor and the bodies of his slain security guards. Rehabilitated and rebranded, the group has emerged as a political party, running candidates in the elections for the first time.
At the rally, Khazali presented his party as the protector of Shiites and the salvation of Iraq, willing to take on the al-Qaeda offshoot, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Photos of young men killed in fighting lined the stadium. Officials said many of them had died fighting alongside Syrian regime forces to defend a main Shiite shrine in Damascus.
Khazali and other officials watching the pageant from front row seats were whisked away at the sound of the first explosion. There was a second and third blast, along with gunfire and the sound of sirens as ambulances arrived to carry the wounded and dead. With no safe place to run to, we stayed, trying to capture on video the huge plume of black smoke rising from the open parking lot across a pedestrian overpass.
One of the guards, so enraged he was spitting, demanded the tape from the camera and pried it out himself when we didn’t comply. When I later started filming video from my still camera, another guard grabbed the camera from my hand and threw it on the pavement.
The broken pieces too large for his liking, he began kicking and jumping up and down on it.
“Why are you taking pictures?” he shouted, as if we had been responsible for the explosion.
“I am a journalist,” I said. The truth is there is nothing else we can do.
When I picked up a tangled piece of the camera still tied to the strap as a memento, he wrestled it from my hand cutting my fingers. I stopped the bleeding with one of the scarves with colors of the Iraqi flag and the party logo the organization had handed out as souvenirs.
We walked out past the speeding ambulances, burning cars and enraged security guards to find a taxi to take us to a part of the city where the explosions had been a distant thud.
Jane Arraf is an Amman based journalist. She was covering the rally for her upcoming story on Iraq’s elections for the PBS NewsHour. Judy Woodruff will interview her on Friday’s program.