Tensions mount after 3 rockets hit US base in Iraq — 1 contractor dead, 1 US troop, 8 contractors injured

BAGHDAD (AP) — Officials now say three 107 mm rockets struck an Iraqi airbase in Irbil where U.S. forces are based late Monday, killing one U.S.-led coalition contractor and injuring a U.S. service member and others, Iraqi security and coalition officials reported, sparking fears of new hostilities.

The rockets, part of a volley of about 14, hit areas near the civilian airport in the Kurdish-run region as well as the nearby base hosting U.S. troops. One civilian contractor with the coalition was killed and nine others were wounded, a coalition spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto, said in a statement posted on social media. One U.S. service member was among the injured and is being treated for concussion protocol, he said.

Marotto said the contractor who was killed was not American, but did not reveal the individual’s nationality. In addition to the U.S. service member, four U.S. contractors were being treated for concussion protocol, he said.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is leading an investigation into the incident.

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack.

At least two civilians were also wounded and material damage was caused to cars and other property, the security officials said, without providing more details. The rockets were launched from an area south of Irbil near the border with Kirkuk province and fell on some residential areas close to the airport.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

A man stands on February 16, 2021 near a fence with graffiti reading in Kurdish
A man stands on February 16, 2021 near a fence with graffiti reading in Kurdish “long live Kurdistan”, at the scene of a rocket attack targeting Arbil the previous night, the first time in nearly two months that Western military or diplomatic installations have been targeted in Iraq, after a string of similar incidents. – A volley of rockets targeting an airbase in Iraq’s Kurdistan region on February 15 killed a foreign civilian contractor and wounded five others and a US soldier, according the US-led coalition. The attack also damaged shops in a area. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED / AFP) (Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)

Attacks targeting Irbil airport are rare. Monday’s attack was the first to strike the area in five months.

On Sept. 30, when six rockets hit near the airport. Kurdish authorities said they had been launched from a pickup truck in the nearby town of Bartella in Ninevah province, which falls under federal government control.

Hoshiyar Zebari, a politburo member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said security officials were investigating the source of the attack. “There will be consequences against the culprits. This aggression will not stand,” he tweeted.

Rocket attacks have frequently target the U.S. presence in Baghdad, including the U.S. Embassy, as well as convoys ferrying materials for the U.S.-led coalition.

The frequency of attacks diminished late last year ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The U.S. under the previous Donald Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

Last year, 109 American troops were diagnosed with mild TBI after an Iranian missile attack on Jan. 8. 2020 that struck two Iraqi bases housing coalition troops

U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was pledging its support for investigating the attack and holding accountable those who were responsible.

The attacks drew condemnation from senior Iraqi, U.S. and other Western officials.

U.N. Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert deplored the deadly assault and called for national unity.

“Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability. Iraq must be shielded from (external) rivalries,” she said in comments posted on Twitter. “We call for restraint and for close Baghdad-Erbil collaboration to bring culprits to justice.”


Associated Press writer Samya Kullab contributed to this report.

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