US ‘assessing’ responsibility, response over Iraq rocket attack

White House says a ‘measured’ military response is on the table, if it serves US interests in the region.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks with reporters at the White House in Washington, DC, the United States on March 3, 2021 [Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

A United States contractor died Wednesday when at least 10 rockets slammed into an airbase housing US and other coalition troops in western Iraq and the US is assessing whether a further response is warranted, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

“We are still assessing the impact of this latest rocket attack, including determining precise attribution,” Psaki said at a daily press briefing.

Psaki responded to questions about planned action by saying the recent bombing by the US of Iran-aligned militias “was calculated proportionate and fully covered by legal authorities.”

“That will be our model, moving forward,” she added. “If we assess a further response is warranted, we will take action.”

President Joe Biden was briefed on the attack earlier Wednesday, Psaki said.

Biden later told reporters that US officials were examining the incident closely. “We’re identifying whose responsible and we’ll make judgments at that point,” he said.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the contractor “suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering” and died shortly afterwards. He said there were no service members injured and all are accounted for. British and Danish troops are also among those stationed at the base.

A December 29, 2019 aerial photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Anbar desert in Iraq [File: Nasser Nasser/AP Photo]

The rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province early in the morning, US-led coalition spokesperson Colonel Wayne Marotto said. Kirby said that the rockets were fired from east of the base, and that counter-rocket defensive systems were used to defend forces at the base.

The attack has yet to be attributed, but there are suspicions Iran-backed forces are responsible.

It was the first attack since the US struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week, killing one militiaman and stoking fears of another cycle of tit-for-tat attacks as happened more than a year ago.

Biden faced criticism over the strike in eastern Syria last week, with critics saying he adopted the same position as his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. The attacks come as the US and Iran are attempting to re-enter a nuclear agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief.

The Ain al-Asad base was struck by Iran with a barrage of missiles in January of last year in retaliation for the killing of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Dozens of US service members suffered concussions in that strike.

The Iraqi military released a statement saying that Wednesday’s attack did not cause significant losses and that security forces had found the launch pad used for the rockets — a truck. Video of the site shows a burning truck in a desert area.

Denmark said coalition forces at the base were helping to bring stability and security to the country.

“Despicable attacks against Ain al-Asad base in #Iraq are completely unacceptable,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod tweeted. The Danish armed forces said two Danes who were at the base at the time of the attack are unharmed.

Marotto, the coalition spokesperson, said the Iraqi security forces were leading an investigation into the attack.

US troops in Iraq significantly decreased their presence in the country last year and withdrew from several Iraqi bases to consolidate chiefly in Ain al-Asad, Baghdad and Erbil.

Iraqis walk by a poster announcing the upcoming visit of Pope Francis and a meeting with a revered Shiite Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, right, in Najaf, Iraq [Anmar Khalil/AP Photo]

The attack comes two days before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the country despite concerns about security and the coronavirus pandemic. The much-anticipated trip will include stops in Baghdad, southern Iraq and the northern city of Erbil.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies