Rocket barrage targets Iraqi base hosting US contractors

Rockets hit an Iraqi military base that houses US contractors, wounding at least one person.

U.S. F-16 fighter jet is seen during an official ceremony to receive four of these aircrafts from the U.S. at the tarmac a military base in Balad
Pentagon says no US or coalition troops were stationed at Balad air base, but American contractors work there [File: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Six rockets were fired towards Iraq’s Balad airbase north of Baghdad, lightly wounding a foreign contractor working for a US company.

Three rockets initially fell in an area where US company Sallyport – the contractor that maintains F-16 aircraft purchased by Iraq from the US – is located, an Iraqi security official said, requesting anonymity.

An employee of Sallyport was lightly wounded, according to the official. Three other rockets were fired about 15 minutes later and fell near the base without hitting it.

Pentagon spokesperson Commander Jessica McNulty said no US or coalition troops were assigned at Balad, but noted that American contractors worked there.

Citing initial reports, McNulty said there were no US casualties or damage.

It was the second attack targeting US interests in less than 24 hours after two rockets on Sunday targeted an airbase at Baghdad Airport housing US-led coalition troops. Sunday’s attack did not cause casualties.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack.

‘Protecting our troops’

On Monday, US Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the latest rocket attacks in Iraq show the US mission is “still dangerous”.

“We’re there to help Iraqi security forces as they also prosecute operations against ISIS [ISIL],” he told reporters, referring to the armed group. “So any violent attack on them or us is of concern, and it does show … it’s still a dangerous mission.”

Kirby said it was the responsibility of Iraqi authorities to investigate. “We’re going to respect that. We’re also going to do whatever we need to do to make sure that we’re adequately protecting our troops on the ground and our national security interests there in Iraq.”

Dozens of attacks

At least 30 rocket or bomb attacks have targeted US interests in Iraq – including troops, the embassy or Iraqi supply convoys to foreign forces – since President Joe Biden took office in January.

Two foreign contractors, one Iraqi contractor and eight Iraqi civilians have been killed. Washington routinely blames Iran-linked Iraqi factions for such attacks on its troops and diplomats.

In early April, two rockets hit near Balad base without causing casualties or property damage.

Also last month, an explosives-packed drone slammed into Iraq’s Erbil airport in the first reported use of such a weapon against a facility used by US-led coalition troops in the country.

Dozens of other attacks were carried out in Iraq from 2019 during the administration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

The operations are sometimes claimed by obscure groups that analysts say are smokescreens for Iran-backed organisations long present in Iraq.

The attacks come at a sensitive time as Tehran is engaged in talks with world powers aimed at bringing the US back into a 2015 nuclear deal.

The agreement, which curbs Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, has been on life support since Trump withdrew in 2018.

Calls from Iraqi lawmakers for the US to withdraw its troops grew after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020. A non-binding resolution passed by Parliament urged the government to expel all foreign troops from Iraq.

The developments spurred strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington that focused primarily on the future of the US troop presence in the country. In late 2020, the US troop level in Iraq was reduced to 2,500 based on orders from the Trump administration.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies