Rocket attack in Iraq kills a US military contractor

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A rocket attack at a US-led military base in Kurdish northern Iraq on Monday killed a civilian contractor and wounded five other people, including a US service member, according to initial reports from the US coalition in Iraq.

IRBIL (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - A rocket attack on the airport in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Monday (Feb 15) killed a civilian contractor with the US-led military coalition and wounded six others, including a US service member, according to a coalition spokesperson.

Several other rockets landed in residential areas of the city, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, including one close to the Chinese Consulate.

The attack, claimed by a little-known group that some Iraqi officials say has links with Iran, raises tension in the Middle East while Washington and Teheran explore a potential return to the Iran nuclear deal.

Armed groups aligned with Iran in Iraq and Yemen have launched attacks against the United States and its Arab allies in recent weeks, including a drone attack on a Saudi airport and rockets against the US embassy in Baghdad.

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

Iran has made clear that it intends to retaliate further for the US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020 that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official.

Days after that strike, the Iranian government launched missile attacks against US forces at the Ain al Assad air base in Iraq's Anbar province, wounding more than 100 troops.

On Monday, minutes after the rocket attack on Irbil, the Kurdish regional government called on residents to stay indoors and the international airport canceled departing and arriving flights.

The United States military has drawn down the number of its troops in Iraq to under 2,500 and has pulled out of several bases there over the past two years.

It says Iraq no longer needs the help it did in the past to fight the Islamic State group, though US officials have acknowledged that militia attacks also factored into the decision to move troops to bases more easily defended.

The military side of Irbil's airport is one of three remaining bases with a significant number of US troops. It was not clear whether anti-rocket defense systems installed at the base were activated by Monday's attack.

The coalition did not reveal the nationality of the civilian contractor who was killed.

The Kurdish ministry of health said three civilians were wounded in Monday's attack.

Kurdish counter-terrorism forces said they had found the vehicle the rockets were launched from but did not say where it was discovered.

Broken glass is seen at the Bright Castle Motors building on Feb 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

A little-known group known as Awliya al Dam (Guardian of the Blood) brigades claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had launched the rockets in revenge for the deaths of "the martyred leaders."

The group claimed responsibility last August for two bombings targeting US contractor convoys carrying military equipment.

In Washington, a White House spokesperson said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the attack in Irbil, but offered no other comment or details.

Smoke rises over Irbil on Feb 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Masrour Barzani, president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, said in a Tweet that he had spoken with Secretary of State Antony Blinken about cooperating to find those responsible for the attack. Mr Blinken later condemned the attack.

"We are outraged by today's rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan region," he said in a statement Monday evening, adding that in speaking with the Kurdish president, he had pledged US support "for all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible.

Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the size and scope of the rocket attack on Irbil was unusually large, and that it had most likely been intended to maim or kill US contractors or service members, or their Kurdish allies.

"This is a test of the new Biden administration to see what they can get away with," Knights said in a telephone interview.

Iraqi leaders have traveled to Teheran to try to persuade Iran to call off attacks, saying conflict between Washington and Teheran left Iraq dangerously in the middle. The embassy in Baghdad continues to operate with the ambassador and a small number of key staff.

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