Rockets strike US-led forces in Iraq, killing contractor

 Rockets strike US-led forces in Iraq, killing contractor

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ERBIL • A rocket attack on US-led forces in northern Iraq killed a civilian contractor and injured a US service member, the American coalition in Iraq said, in the deadliest such attack in almost a year.

The rockets landed on Monday in and around a military airbase operated by the coalition at Erbil International Airport.

Coalition spokesman Wayne Marotto said that the dead contractor was not American, but did not elaborate.

He said three 107mm rockets landed inside the base.

Of the nine other people hurt, eight were civilian contractors and one a US service member.

A United States official who declined to be named said the US serviceman had a concussion.

The attack, claimed by a little-known group that some Iraqi officials say has links to Iran, has raised tensions as Washington explores some degree of detente with Iran.

It also comes just three weeks before a March 5-8 visit to Iraq by Pope Francis, which is set to include Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was outraged by the attack and pledged US support in holding those responsible to account.

“I have reached out to Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to discuss the incident and to pledge our support for all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible,” he said.

Iraqi and US security officials have blamed the attacks on hardline pro-Iran factions, including Kataeb Hizbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which are both vehemently opposed to the US presence in Iraq.

On Monday, a group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam (Guardians of Blood) said it carried out the attack, but security officials have told Agence France-Presse that they believe it to be a front group for those same prominent pro-Iran factions.

The authorities have struggled to hold them to account.

Last year, an attempt by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to arrest more than a dozen members of Kataeb Hizbollah accused of rocket attacks ended in the swift release of all but one of the fighters.

Instead, then US President Donald Trump ordered several rounds of bombing raids on Kataeb Hizbollah in response to the deaths of US service members.

Powerful paramilitary groups aligned with Iran in Iraq and Yemen have launched attacks against the US and its Arab allies in recent weeks, including a drone attack on a Saudi airport and a rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Iraq’s government under Mr al-Kadhimi has sided with the US but has found it hard to bring the groups under control.

Most of the incidents have caused no casualties, but they have kept up pressure on US troops and US allies in the early days of Mr Joe Biden’s presidency.

Mr Biden’s administration is weighing a return to the 2015 big power nuclear deal that aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, which Mr Trump abandoned in 2018.

Iran says it will resume compliance with the deal only if Washington lifts crippling sanctions.

Meanwhile, the United Nations warned that Iraq could spin out of control, with top UN representative in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert slamming the attack yesterday morning.

“Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability,” she posted on Twitter, calling for restraint and cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil on a probe.


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