ARBIL, IRAQ (AFP) - The United Nations warned on Tuesday (Feb 16) that Iraq could spin out of control after a rocket attack on the Kurdish regional capital Arbil killed a foreign contractor and wounded several Iraqis and foreigners.
The attack late on Monday was the first time in nearly two months that Western military or diplomatic installations have been targeted in Iraq after a series of similar incidents blamed on pro-Iranian Shi'ite factions last year. The United Nations' top representative in Iraq, Ms Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, slammed the attack on Tuesday morning.
"Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability," she posted on Twitter, calling for "restraint" and cooperation between Baghdad and Arbil on a probe. On Monday evening, more than a dozen 107mm rockets - the same size used in attacks in Baghdad - were fired from around 8km west of Arbil.
They appeared to be targeted at a military complex in Arbil airport that hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition helping Iraq fight militants since 2014. But they struck all over the north-west of the city, including residential neighbourhoods, where they wounded five civilians, the Arbil health directorate told AFP.
Coalition spokesman Wayne Marotto said three rockets hit Arbil airport, killing one foreign civilian contractor who is not an American national. Another nine people were wounded, including eight civilian contractors and one US soldier, he said.
Arbil airport remained closed to all flights on Tuesday morning as the authorities assessed the damage, its director Ahmad Hoshyar told AFP.
Late Monday, 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.
Mr Barzani had earlier condemned the attack "in the strongest terms", while Iraqi President Barham Saleh called it a "dangerous escalation and a criminal terrorist act".
Western military and diplomatic facilities have been targeted by dozens of rockets and roadside bombs since late 2019, but most of the attacks have been on Baghdad, not Arbil.
Several of the attacks have been deadly, with both foreign and Iraqi personnel killed. Iraqi and US security officials have blamed hardline pro-Iran factions, including Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who are both vehemently opposed to the US presence in Iraq.
Late Monday, a shadowy group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam (Guardians of Blood) said it carried out the attack, but security officials have told AFP 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-Kadhemi to arrest more than a dozen members of Kataeb Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah in response to the deaths of US service members.
Before leaving office in January, Mr Trump had threatened that any further fatal attacks would prompt a mass bombing campaign, with Iraqi sources telling AFP that more than 100 sites would be targeted. Iraqi and even US officials have told AFP in recent weeks that it was not clear whether the new administration under President Joe Biden would pursue the same "tripwire".
Since Iraq declared victory against the Islamic State group in late 2017, the coalition presence has been reduced to fewer than 3,500 troops, 2,500 of them American. Most are concentrated at the military complex at Arbil airport, a coalition source told AFP.
Arbil has been targeted very rarely, although Iranian forces fired missiles at the same airport in January last year, a few days after Washington assassinated prominent Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad airport.
Both Iran and hardline Iraqi armed groups have repeatedly pledged to take revenge for Gen Soleimani's killing. The same groups have recently vowed to boost their military activity in the Kurdistan region, ostensibly against a Turkish incursion.