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‘Call to wake up’: Deadly rocket attack in Iraq puts pressure on US | Conflict News

Sulaimaniyah, Iraq – This was the most serious attack on the US-led coalition since the Biden administration seized power with swirling questions about who was responsible for the rare rocket barrage on the town of Erbil .

A volley of projectiles targeted the main military base inside Erbil Airport, which hosts foreign troops deployed as part of the US-led coalition that assisted Iraq. fight the armed group ISIL (ISIS) since 2014.

But rockets struck across the city’s northwestern sector early Tuesday, killing a foreign civilian contractor and injuring at least nine others, including a US soldier.

Civilian areas near the facility were also affected. One of the injured was in critical condition, said Aso Hawezi, spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) health ministry on Wednesday.

A shadowy group calling themselves Awliya al-Dam – or the Guardians of the Blood – claimed responsibility and said they would keep attacking “Occupation” of US forces in Iraq.

The attack was the first in nearly two months after a series of similar incidents – blamed on pro-Iranian Shiite militias – directed against Western military installations or diplomatic missions in Iraq since 2019.

UN warns Iraq could spiral out of control after rocket attack on Kurdish regional capital Erbil kills one civilian and injured several others [File: Safin Hamed/AFP]

Major security breach

While assaults on US interests in Iraq have been common in recent years, it is extremely rare for such incidents to occur in Erbil or throughout the KRG.

An official with the KRG’s Peshmerga forces, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera that the rocket barrage represented “a great security breach for all the main Kurdish security agencies ”.

“How the rockets entered the region remains uncertain, but it is possible that personnel from the security forces and peshmerga in the Kurdistan region collaborated with the perpetrators,” the source said.

According to the official, the rockets were assembled outside the territory of the Kurdistan regional government and then introduced into the region. They were launched from a fruit and vegetable market located 7 km (3 miles) from downtown Erbil, he said.

“The range of the rockets is 8 km [3.5 miles] and the PMF often uses such rockets, ”he added, referring to the Popular mobilization forces, Iraqi paramilitaries created in 2014 from Shiite militia groups to fight ISIS.

“As a result of this security disaster, all key intelligence officials in Erbil should at least be fired,” the official said, adding that a financial crisis and internal strife have impacted the Peshmerga’s ability to fulfill their role of security in the semi-autonomous region.

In a statement on Tuesday, the KRG’s Interior Ministry confirmed that rockets had been launched from the Kurdish region of Iraq and that the van – from which the rockets were allegedly launched – had been found.

Smoke rises over Erbil after rocket attacks near the airport on February 15, 2021 [Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Who is behind?

Kurdistan Democratic Party official spokesman Mahmoud Mohammed said in a statement that a group of fighters with ties to the Iraqi PMF were responsible.

PMF, also known as Hashd al-Shaabi, was officially part of the Iraqi armed forces after its creation, but has spawned other armed groups, including pro-Iranian factions, which are ideologically affiliated with it.

Mohammed condemned the “heinous terrorist act” and called on the federal government, the international coalition and the United States to immediately investigate the incident and punish the perpetrators.

The PMF, meanwhile, rejected claims that his factions carried out the attack.

Sayed Ali Hosseini, PMF’s northern front relations chief, dismissed the allegations, saying his forces were not in the area from which the 14 rockets were fired.

“The PMF is not positioned in the area from which the rockets were launched, so we reject the charges which accuse us of being behind the attacks,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.

“We will take legal action against anyone who accuses us of carrying out the attacks without proof,” he added.

New armed groups

Hosseini said he did not know Awliya al-Dam and questioned whether the little-known group actually carried out the attack.

Erbil’s Security Directorate, the US Consulate General in Erbil and the US-led coalition did not respond to requests for comment.

Over the past year, several new armed groups have claimed responsibility for rocket attacks against Western diplomatic and security installations in Iraq.

US and Iraqi security officials say these are fronts for pro-Iranian factions, including large armed groups such as Kataib hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

Man in hospital bed after being injured in rocket attack on US forces at Erbil airport [File: Azad Lashkari/Reuters]

“Wake-up call”

According to Caroline Rose, senior analyst at the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, the attack sent a message of intimidation to both the Biden administration and the Iraqi federal government.

She said this reflected that pro-Iran militias could attack anywhere in Iraq, adding that no American position was secure – even in the KRG.

“The fact that this group [Awliya al-Dam] being relatively unfamiliar with security experts doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not connected to more established Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq, ”Rose told Al Jazeera via Twitter.

“However, Iran and its proxies integrated into the PMF have started a new habit of creating a series of spinoff organizations to carry out attacks as we saw in Erbil in order to blur lines of responsibility and create cover. of plausible deniability so that the Iraqi federal government and the United States cannot easily impose responsibility, ”she said.

According to Rose, the incident was a “wake-up call for the Biden administration to develop country-specific Iraqi policy,” she said, adding that the new US administration had been told “that it must demonstrate of caution ”.

Complete withdrawal in the United States

In December 2019, an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk province, prompting the United States to respond with airstrikes against pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah.

The United States had about 5,200 troops deployed to Iraq to fight ISIS in 2014. But since Iraq’s victory over the group in late 2017, Washington has reduced the number of American forces with only 2,500 remaining. .

Calls for a complete withdrawal of US troops reached their peak following rocket attacks on US military and diplomatic sites and the US assassination of Iranian elite force commander Quds, the general Qassem Soleimani, and deputy of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, during a drone strike near Baghdad airport in January last year.

But instead of an immediate withdrawal from Erbil, Rose said, “The United States should seek to hold those responsible for the attack accountable and work to support the Iraqi federal government in an investigation and connect the dots between the PMF, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al. -Haq, and its ramifications.

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