The United Nations has warned that tensions in Iraq could escalate after a rocket attack killed a foreign US military contractor and injured at least 14 others in Erbil. The raid was condemned by the United States and its European allies.
The attack in the Kurdish regional capital of northern Iraq last Monday was the first in nearly two months that targeted Western military or diplomatic installations in Iraq, after a series of similar incidents blamed on pro-Iranian Shiite factions.
“These heinous and reckless acts constitute serious threats to stability,” wrote on Twitter the main UN representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, calling for “restraint” on all sides.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier he was “outraged” and pledged US support to hold those responsible to account.
In a separate statement later Tuesday, Blinken and his counterparts in France, Germany, Italy and the UK condemned the attack “in the strongest terms” and pledged to support the Iraqi investigation.
“We are united in our opinion that attacks on US and Coalition personnel and facilities will not be tolerated,” the statement said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said that “the terrorist act which targeted the Kurdistan region aims to sow chaos” and pledged to prevent Iraq from becoming a “backyard” where regional conflicts.
Iran also condemned the attack, saying it opposed any act that undermined Iraq’s security, denying suggestions by some Iraqi officials that it had any connection to the little-known group that has claimed responsibility for the murderous incident.
“Iran considers the stability and security of Iraq to be a key issue for the region … and rejects any action which disturbs peace and order in this country,” said the spokesman for the Iranian ministry. from Foreign Affairs Saeed Khatibzadeh to the media.
The 107-millimeter (4.2-inch) rocket barrage – of the same caliber used in the recent attacks in Baghdad – was fired on Monday evening from about eight kilometers (five miles) west of Erbil.
State Spox on Erbil Rocket Attack: It would be premature to talk about retaliation before knowing exactly what happened …
reserves the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing, in accordance with our partnership with Iraq.
– Laura Rozen (@lrozen) February 16, 2021
They appeared to be targeting a military complex inside Erbil Airport which hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition that has helped Iraq fight the ISIS (ISIS) group. since 2014.
But they struck across the northwest of the city, including residential areas where they injured five civilians, Erbil’s health directorate told AFP news agency.
Coalition spokesman Wayne Marotto said three rockets hit Erbil airport and killed a civilian contractor, who he said was neither Iraqi nor a US national.
Nine other people were injured, including eight civilian contractors and a US soldier, he said.
A shadowy group calling themselves Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of Blood) claimed responsibility for the attack and said in a follow-up statement Tuesday that they would continue to attack US forces in Iraq.
Over the past year, a dozen unprecedented formations have claimed responsibility for rocket attacks against Western diplomatic and security installations.
US and Iraqi officials told AFP they believe these factions are “smokescreen” entities for larger pro-Iran groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
These factions are members of Hashd al-Shaabi, a powerful state-sponsored armed network whose pro-Iranian members often act independently of the government. The group, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), fought on the front lines against ISIS.
Following the hawkish campaign against Iran under Donald Trump, President Joe Biden’s administration – which seeks to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran – has said it will not rush to judge or act.
“Certainly we have seen these attacks in the past. We have seen the Iraqi militia and the Iranian-backed militia in many cases being responsible, ”Blinken said in a separate interview with National Public Radio on Tuesday.
“But at this time, it is too early to know who is responsible for this one,” he said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said those attacks had increased with the previous administration’s decision to diplomatically withdraw from Iran.
Since Iraq declared victory over ISIS in late 2017, the presence of the US-led coalition has been reduced to less than 3,500 troops, including 2,500 Americans.
Most are concentrated in the military complex at Erbil airport, a coalition official told AFP, adding that the gradual withdrawal had left “gaps” in the security structure.
Erbil has been attacked very rarely, although Iranian forces fired missiles at the same airport in January last year, days after Washington assassinated prominent Iranian General Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport.