ERBIL, IraqÂ â€”Â At exactly 9:30 pm local time on Feb. 15, several rockets were launched on US coalition forces located inside Erbilâ€™s international airport from the southern side of the city.
The attack targeted the US coalition base in the northern Iraq city, killing a civilian contractor and injuring eight others.
The rocket attack was the deadliest in almost a year and follows a series of similar events that occurred last year, including several attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The last time a US-affiliated contractor was killed was in late 2019 when missiles struckÂ the K1 military base in northern Kirkuk, which houses coalition forces. ThatÂ attack led to more violence,Â including protesters from the militias attacking the US Embassy in Baghdad and then the US assassination of Iranian top commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani by drone strike.
A newly formed pro-Iranian militiaÂ named Saraya Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of Blood)Â claimed responsibility for the Feb. 15 attack in a statement that read, â€œYour men in the Awliya al-Dam Brigades managed to carry out a qualitative operation against the American occupation in our beloved north, as we approached the occupation base (Al-Harir) in Erbil.â€
TheÂ militia vowed that “the American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, even in Kurdistan, where we promise you other qualitative operations.”
Indications are that this militia is only a new front ofÂ Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which is trying to show itself as the most powerful Shiite militias among the Popular Mobilization Units, pushing other factions to follow its lead.
AAH leader Qais al-Khazali had threatened the Kurdistan Regional Government previously that his group would attack US bases everywhere in Iraq, including in the north.
AAH militia members also gathered in the Karrada district of BaghdadÂ last December, attempting to flex their musclesÂ afterÂ one of their prominent commandersÂ known as the engineer of rocket attacksÂ â€”Â Hosam AzerjawiÂ â€”Â was arrested by the Iraqi government. This was after the last attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, also in December. The attacks stopped following Azerjawi’sÂ arrest.
Coalition spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto confirmed via Twitter that 14 â€œ107 mm rockets” were launchedÂ toward the US coalition base in the Erbil attack.Â Three of them landed inside the military base;Â the rest landed in the neighboring residential areas.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said during the Cabinet session on Feb. 16, â€œThe terrorist act aims to create chaos and shuffle the cards, but we have directed anÂ investigation be opened to identify and arrest the criminals.â€ Kadhimi pointedÂ out that â€œsecurity forces have detained the gang members (death squads) that killed a number of citizens, including activists and media workers in Basra,â€ adding the government is moving forward in this direction and the spilled innocent blood will not be forgotten.
President Braham Salih said in a Tweet, â€œWe have no choice but to root out the forces of terror and the attempts to plunge the country into chaosÂ â€¦ it is the battle of the state and sovereignty against terrorism and outlaws.â€
Kurdistan President NechirvanÂ Barzani condemned â€œin the strongest terms tonightâ€™s rocket attacks on Erbilâ€ and tweeted that he has â€œinstructed security services to start a full investigation and spoke to PM [Kadhimi] on ways to cooperate and identify the outlaws behind this terror attack.”
US Secretary of StateÂ Antony Blinken saidÂ the United States isÂ “outraged by todayâ€™s rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan Regionâ€ and pledgesÂ support to â€œinvestigate and hold accountable those responsible.”
Although the militiaÂ claiming responsibility for the attack seems to be pro-Iranian, spokesperson forÂ Iranâ€™s Foreign MinistryÂ Saeed Khatibzadeh quickly moved to reject any suggestions that it had links to Iran or Iran-backed groups, condemning any terrorist attack within Iraq. Khatibzadeh told state media that â€œwhile these rumors are strongly denied, the suspicious attempt to attribute it to Iran is also strongly condemned.â€ He then stated that â€œIran considers the stability and security of Iraq a key issue for the region and its neighbors and rejects any action that disturbs the peace and order in [Iraq].”
However, the Kurdish counterterrorism service published photos of missile platforms showing the 107 mm Iranian-made rocketsÂ known as Fajr 1 missilesÂ with a range of 8 kilometers were responsible for the attack.
It could be that the attack, which has occurred less than 10 days after US President Joe Biden saidÂ he will not unilaterally lift sanctions against Iran, may be intended to deliver a message to the United StatesÂ that Iran is running out of patience.