The United Nations has warned tensions in Iraq could escalate after a rocket attack killed a foreign contractor for the US military and wounded 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 late on Monday was the first in nearly two months which was directed at Western military or diplomatic installations in Iraq, after a series of similar incidents blamed on pro-Iranian Shia factions.
“Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability,” the UN’s top representative in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert wrote on Twitter, calling for “restraint” on all sides.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier said he was “outraged” and pledged American support in holding those responsible to account.
In a separate statement later on Tuesday, Blinken and his counterparts from France, Germany, Italy and the UK condemned “in the strongest terms” the attack, and promised to support the Iraqi investigation.
“We are united in our view 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 that targeted the Kurdistan region aims to create chaos” and pledged to keep Iraq from becoming a “back yard” where regional conflicts play out.
‘Barrage of rockets’
Iran also condemned the attack saying it opposed any acts that harmed Iraq’s security, denying suggestions by some Iraqi officials that it had any link to the little-known group that claimed responsibility for the deadly incident.
“Iran considers Iraq’s stability and security as a key issue for the region … and rejects any action that disturbs the peace and order in that country,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told state media.
The barrage of 107-millimetre (4.2 inch) rockets – the same calibre used in recent attacks in Baghdad – was fired on Monday evening from around eight kilometres (five miles) west of Erbil.
State spox on Erbil rocket attack: it would be premature to talk about retaliation before we know exactly what happened…
reserve right to respond in time and place of our choosing consistent with our partnership with Iraq.
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) February 16, 2021
They appeared to be aimed at a military complex inside the Erbil airport that hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition that has helped Iraq fight the ISIL (ISIS) group since 2014.
But they struck all over the city’s northwest, including in residential districts where they wounded five civilians, the Erbil health directorate told the AFP news agency.
Coalition spokesman Wayne Marotto said three rockets hit Erbil airport and killed one civilian contractor, who he said was neither an Iraqi nor US national.
A further nine people were wounded, including eight civilian contractors and one US soldier, he said.
A shadowy group calling itself Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of Blood) claimed the attack and in a follow-up statement on Tuesday said it would to keep attacking US forces in Iraq.
Over the past year, approximately a dozen previously unheard-of formations have claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Western diplomatic and security installations.
US and Iraqi officials have told AFP they believe such factions to be “smokescreen” entities for more prominent pro-Iran groups including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Those factions are members of the Hashd al-Shaabi, a powerful state-sponsored armed network whose pro-Iran members often act independently of the government. The group, also known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) fought in the front line against ISIL.
In a shift from the hawkish campaign against Iran under Donald Trump, President Joe Biden’s administration – which is looking to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran – said it would not rush to judgement or action.
“Certainly, we’ve seen these attacks in the past. We’ve seen Iraqi militia and Iranian-backed militia in many cases be responsible,” Blinken said in a separate interview with the National Public Radio on Tuesda
“But to date, it’s too early to know who’s responsible for this one,” he said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that such attacks had increased with the previous administration’s decision to disengage diplomatically from Iran.
Since Iraq declared victory over ISIL in late 2017, the US-led coalition presence has been reduced to fewer than 3,500 troops, of whom 2,500 are American.
Most are concentrated at the military complex at Erbil airport, a coalition official told AFP, adding that the phased drawdown had left “gaps” in the security structure.
Erbil has very rarely come under attack, although Iranian forces fired missiles at the same airport in January last year, a few days after Washington assassinated prominent Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport.