Rockets hit air base housing US soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan

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At least three rockets were fired on Monday evening towards Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan (northern Iraq), and one hit an air base where American troops are stationed, the coalition led by United States. A civilian employee was killed. Colonel Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the US-led coalition, was unable to immediately state his nationality.

Delovan Jalal, head of Erbil’s health department, told Agence France Presse (AFP) that at least five civilians were injured, one of whom was in critical condition. An American soldier was also injured.

Iraqi and Western security sources told AFP that at least three rockets had been fired at the city’s airport. Besides the military complex, two of them fell on residential areas on the outskirts of the city.

Read also: In Iraq, pro-Iranian militias determined to take revenge

This is the first time in nearly two months that such fire has targeted Western military or diplomatic installations in Iraq.

An investigation demanded by the United States

Pro-Iranian propaganda media were the first to report the attack. The attack was claimed online by a little-known group calling themselves Awliyaa al-Dam or “Guardians of Blood”.

The United States has called for an investigation into the attack and the prosecution of its perpetrators. “We are outraged by today’s rocket attack,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I contacted the Prime Minister of the Kurdish regional government Masrour Barzani to discuss the incident and assured him of our full support to investigate and hold those responsible to account.”

Kurdistan’s interior ministry said security agencies had launched “a thorough investigation” and called on civilians to stay at home until further notice. Security forces were deployed around the airport after the attack, while the sound of flying helicopters could be heard on the outskirts of the city, according to an AFP correspondent.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh said on Twitter that the attack was “a criminal act of terrorism” and “a dangerous escalation” to security in the region. Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, condemned the attack “in the strongest terms”.

Western military and diplomatic installations targeted since fall 2019

Two intelligence sources told AFP that the rockets had been launched from inside the autonomous region. And an American officer said the projectiles were 107-millimeter rockets that had been fired from a distance of eight kilometers west of Erbil.

Western military and diplomatic installations have been targeted in Iraq since the fall of 2019 by dozens of rockets as well as bomb attacks on the road network, but most of these actions were carried out in Baghdad.

Iranian missiles were, however, fired at Erbil airport in January 2020, a few days after the murder of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by an American drone strike in Baghdad.

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Rockets were then fired regularly against the American embassy in the Iraqi capital, with American and Iraqi officials blaming pro-Iranian militias, such as the Kataeb Hezbollah group or Asaïb Ahl al-Haq.

Growing tensions in northern Iraq

These groups fight against the coalition led by the United States, which has been operating in Iraq since 2014 to help local forces in their fight against the jihadist group Islamic State (IS). Since Iraq declared victory over ISIS in late 2017, foreign troops have been reduced to 3,500 military personnel, including 2,500 Americans. Almost all of these foreign units are stationed in the military complex at Erbil airport, a coalition source told AFP.

Read more: The United States is reducing its military presence in Iraq

Despite the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops, rocket attacks continued, much to the dismay of the United States. Washington had threatened in October to close its embassy if the attacks did not stop. After which several pro-Iran Iraqi factions agreed to a negotiated truce under the aegis of the Iraqi government. The rocket fire has almost stopped. But there have been several violations nonetheless, the most recent before Monday night’s attack in Erbil was the firing of several rockets at the American embassy in late December.

Monday’s shooting came amid growing tensions in northern Iraq, where neighboring Turkey is waging intense fighting against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara calls “terrorist”. Turkey regularly carries out attacks in the mountainous areas of northern Iraq against the rear bases of the PKK, which since 1984 has delivered a bloody guerrilla war on Turkish soil which has claimed more than 40,000 lives.