Baghdad, Iraq – The huge crowd was distracted by a skydiver when the first bomb went off, necks craned towards the sky as he threw leaflets down at them, a first for a Baghdad election rally.
“I was staring up – everybody was – and it was just as he started to throw the flyers that I heard the first explosion,” Abu Sarah, 40, who was about 30 metres from the suicide blast, told Al Jazeera.
“I looked back down and I saw the flames and then the shrapnel started falling.”
The skydiver continued to float slowly down from the quiet sky as a thick plume of black smoke rose to meet him. The chaos of shouting people, gunfire and more blasts waited below.
Within minutes, there was a second bomb, bigger than the first. This one was driven at high speed, packed into a people-carrier. Footage showed it careening past a soldier, still dazed from the first blast and crawling on all fours, and into the entrance of the stadium where the rally was being held.
Seconds later, it exploded, sending a giant orange fireball into Baghdad’s evening sky.
Another witness, Abu Ewan, 29, described the ground shaking underneath him as he raced with friends to the centre of the stadium’s playing fields to escape the bombs nearer its entrances.
“The shrapnel poured down on us like rain,” he said. “It was falling on the plastic seats and burning through them. Men were firing weapons everywhere. The candidates were fleeing, they wanted to save their own skin.”
And then, the final explosion, another suicide attack. All three blasts happened within five minutes.
The carefully-planned assault, on a rally for the hardline Shia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a paramilitary organisation entering electoral politics for the first time, left 37 people dead and more than 80 injured.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group formed from the remnants of a now defunct al-Qaeda affiliate and boosted by its involvement in the war in neighbouring Syria, claimed the attack in a statement, apparently making good on a threat to disrupt the elections any way it can.
And, ahead of polling day, that underlined to Iraqis something they already knew: Iraq, including its teeming capital with a population of more than seven million, is a difficult place to keep safe.
Though the target of Friday’s attack was political, people are in no doubt that everybody is now in the crosshairs.
Shia neighbourhoods are the focus of most of the car bombs and suicide blasts that regularly target civilians, though Sunni and more integrated areas are sometimes hit, too.
|Iraqis worry about security as vote nears|
The intention of ISIL and other groups confronting the Shia-led government is, many say, to spark the sort of sectarian violence that pushed the country close to civil war in 2006-2007.
So far, that has not happened despite this being the bloodiest period – with 8,740 people killed over the past year, according to United Nations figures – since then.
Fighting between government troops and opposition forces, some of them ISIL, in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province has added to the overall level of insecurity, with the violence so intense, and so many people displaced, that many Sunni politicians say a full vote is impossible there.
The focus of the biggest election day security operation, however, will be the capital.
Not far from the site of the rally attack, and housed in the Adnan Palace, once the home of Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, the Baghdad Operations Command is tasked with protecting the city.
The palace is a huge, airy building filled with marble and gifted with an impressively ornate ceiling in its main lobby. But its control rooms, to which the media is rarely granted access, have been converted to a much more prosaic style of decor, suited to monitoring security threats.
Soldiers keep watch over walls of maps and banks of computer monitors, feeding information from the city’s checkpoints and from cameras attached to helicopters on patrol. Senior officers huddle in corners, smoking and swapping nuggets from intelligence gathering operations.
“The biggest challenge we face is the terrorist gangs trying to prevent the elections [from] happening on schedule by placing bombs on the road, targeting candidates and trying to stir up sectarian strife,” Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Shammari, commander of Baghdad Operations, told Al Jazeera in his office, which was decorated with Iraqi flags and a photograph of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“We are in full readiness to deal with terrorism,” he said.
In the main control room, Sa’ad Maan, spokesman for the unit, pointed to a map that showed the locations of some of Baghdad’s main checkpoints. The city has a few hundred static checkpoints and about the same number of mobile ones. But when the threat level is high, like during elections, there can be as many as 1,000 in operation, officials say.
Maan says there will be “failed attempts” at attacks but that intelligence should prevent them.
“Two days ago in Baghdad, we launched an operation to kill a group of terrorists,” he said. “And we discovered a cache of weapons and confiscated more than 20 improvised explosive devices that were ready to be used on election day. Prevention is only the first stage of our plan.”
‘Primed and ready’
One military official, however, speaking off the record, admitted to Al Jazeera that he thinks there will be attacks on polling day but he added that they would not manage to stop the election going ahead.
The Baghdad public, well used to feeling threatened, appear to share that opinion.
The shrapnel poured down on us like rain. It was falling on the plastic seats and burning through them.
Much of the capital, though always on alert, has developed a noticeably different atmosphere as polling day approaches. Election posters are everywhere, security has been visibly stepped up, and some shops and businesses have already been shuttered until voting is over.
In the al-Salihiya neighbourhood, near the heavily-fortified “Green Zone” that houses government ministries and many embassies, most people told Al Jazeera that, while worried about security, they still intended to vote, believing the security forces would contain the threat.
“I think they can protect the elections. But not 100 percent because terrorism in Iraq is difficult to control,” said Saad Jumaah, a 59-year-old taxi driver, standing on a street much quieter than usual.
“The proof is that the US forces were unable to control it for many years.”
Umm Zahraa, a 35-year-old woman who owns a clothes shop, told Al Jazeera that while she was worried about potential attacks, she was also still determined to cast her vote.
But Faisal Ghazi, 33-years-old and unemployed, said the elections were not worth the risk.
“The security forces will not be able to control security on election day,” he said. “The proof is that explosions happen every day in Iraq and, most recently, the explosion at the rally yesterday.”
As the April 30th polling day draws closer, Baghdad is bound to become yet more tense.
ISIL, in a statement attributed to them on Internet forums this week, said car bombs and suicide vests have already been smuggled into the city and are primed and ready for use.
When the 7,964 polling stations across the country open this week, it will represent the peak of one of the biggest tests Iraqi security forces have faced since US troops pulled out in December 2011.
Those who want to vote will be hoping they pass.
Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry