Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched ballistic missiles at what it claimed were Israeli “spy headquarters” in Iraq’s Kurdish region and hit targets allegedly linked to ISIL (ISIS) in northern Syria, saying it was defending its security and countering terrorism.
At least eight explosions were heard in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, early on Tuesday. Four people were killed and six were wounded, the regional security council said.
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“Ballistic missiles were used to destroy espionage centres and gatherings of anti-Iranian terrorist groups in the region,” the IRGC said, adding that it fired 11 missiles, state media reported.
The Iraqi government condemned what it called Iran’s “aggression” on Erbil that led to civilian casualties in residential areas, calling it a violation of the country’s sovereignty and the security of its people, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The government said it would consider various actions, including filing a complaint at the United Nations Security Council.
The IRGC claimed that it had hit the headquarters of Israeli spy agency Mossad in Erbil, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.
“We assure our nation that the Guards’ offensive operations will continue until avenging the last drops of martyrs’ blood,” it said.
Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish region, condemned the attack on Erbil as a “crime against the Kurdish people”.
The Kurdish regional government said it shot down three bomb-laden drones at 5:05am (02:05 GMT) that were targeting a United States-led coalition base in Erbil, near the city’s international airport, from where air traffic was briefly diverted.
Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said Tehran respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, but was using its “legitimate and legal right to deter national security threats”.
Iraq recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations and summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in Baghdad over the attacks, which were condemned by the US.
Multimillionaire Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee and several members of his family were among the civilian casualties, killed when at least one rocket crashed into their home.
Dizayee, who was close to the ruling Barzani clan, owned businesses behind major real estate and security projects in the Kurdish region.
US Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller described the missile attacks as “reckless”, adding that they “undermine Iraq’s stability”.
We strongly condemn Iran’s attacks in Erbil and offer condolences to the families of the victims. We oppose Iran’s reckless missile strikes and support the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s efforts to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people.
— Matthew Miller (@StateDeptSpox) January 16, 2024
“We support the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s efforts to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people,” he posted on X, earlier known as Twitter.
Two US officials told the Reuters news agency that the attacks did not affect any of their facilities and there were no US casualties. A US defence official told The Associated Press news agency that the US has tracked the missiles, both in northern Iraq and northern Syria, and called them “imprecise”.
British Foreign Minister David Cameron condemned the strikes as “unprovoked and unjustified actions” and “are an unacceptable violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The UK condemns the Iranian regime’s attacks in Erbil last night.
These unprovoked and unjustified actions are an unacceptable violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Our thoughts are with the families of the victims.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) January 16, 2024
Last week, the US and Britain launched military strikes in Yemen in response to attacks by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea, which Tehran slammed as a “violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a breach of international laws”.
The attacks come amid heightened fears that Israel’s continued military offensive in the Gaza Strip could lead to a wider regional escalation.
Since the Gaza war began in October, US and allied forces have faced dozens of attacks in Iraq and Syria, which US President Joe Biden’s administration has blamed on Iran-affiliated armed groups.
Sina Azodi, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, said while the strikes are significant, they do not signal a new regional escalation.
“As long as the conflict in Gaza continues, we will see actions,” Azodi told Al Jazeera.
“My main concern is, one of these attacks, there could be casualties, US casualties, which would force the United States to respond and then it could escalate without anyone actually wanting war,” he added.
The IRGC also said it launched missile attacks against the “perpetrators of terrorist operations in the Islamic Republic, particularly ISIL”, in Syria, state media reported. It claimed to have launched four Kheibar missiles at ISIL positions in Idlib.
“The Guards identified and destroyed gathering places of their commanders and key elements with a series of ballistic missiles in response to the recent terrorist atrocities in Iran,” the statement said.
Mounir al-Mustafa, deputy director of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, in northwest Syria, told The AP that one of the strikes in Idlib hit a medical clinic that was no longer operating.
Earlier, ISIL claimed responsibility for the January 3 twin bombings in Iran’s southeastern city of Kerman, which killed nearly 100 people.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem reported that “Iran has been trying, as much as possible, to distance itself from any kind of tension” in the region amid Israel’s war in Gaza, which has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians. About 1,140 people were also killed in Israel in the preceding Hamas attacks.
“This is the first time we’re seeing the Iranians going a step further,” said Hashem, describing the assaults as a “new escalation”.
Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran-based political analyst and university professor, said everyone appears to be concerned about “an escalation” in the Middle East except for Israel and its ally US, which has refused to support a ceasefire in Gaza.
“I think the strikes the Iranians carried out are both to target Mossad offices and terrorist organisations, but also to send a message to Israelis and Americans that this escalation will hurt them more than anyone else,” he told Al Jazeera.