A succession of rockets has spread terror in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The attack, claimed by a Shiite militia, has targeted a base of the international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and has claimed the life of a contractor and injured eight other people, including a US military man. The deadliest onslaught in months is a litmus test for the new US administration, which has vowed to respond firmly.
At least three rockets hit the area where the Erbil international airport is located on the outskirts of the city late Monday. The base of the international coalition against the IS (Islamic State) is located in the facilities, where the bulk of its contingent remains, currently around 3,500 uniformed men of which 2,500 are Americans.
According to the counterterrorism unit of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, “two rockets hit the Erbil international airport and another flew over the airport.” The first images released after the attack show the impact of one of the rockets in the vicinity of Erbil avenue causing major damage in the adjacent residential area. Security forces have located the vehicle that served as the launch pad in southern Erbil, near Kirkuk province.
According to the spokesman for the international coalition, US Colonel Wayne Marotto, a civilian contractor has been killed and five others injured. A member of the US military has also suffered injuries. The nationality of the deceased has not been disclosed but coalition sources have indicated that he is neither Iraqi nor American. Two other civilians have been injured by the impact of the rockets in nearby residential areas. In the hours following the incident, local authorities urged citizens to stay away from the affected areas and remain in their homes.
The attack, the most serious since which took the lives of two Americans and a British last March in northern Iraq, has been claimed by “Awliyaa al Dam” (The Guardians of Blood, in Arabic), a little known Shiite militia backed by Iran. “The US occupation will not be safe from our attacks in any corner of the country, including Kurdistan, where we promise to carry out other qualitative operations,” the group said in a statement in which it claimed to have launched 24 rockets that bypassed the airport defenses.
The onslaught adds pressure to the newly inaugurated presidency of Joe Biden, which is trying to resuscitate the nuclear pact struck with Iran in 2015 that Trump abandoned three years later. “We convey our condolences to the loved ones of the civilian contractor killed in this attack and to the innocent people of Iraq and their families who suffer these ruthless acts of violence,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a written statement in which he has promised to investigate the attack and prosecute its perpetrators. Since 2019 Donald Trump had warned that, if it occurred, the death of a US contractor would force the US to scale its operations and carry out airstrikes on Iraqi enclaves.
The incident also shows the growing threat from Shiite militias and their destabilizing power in northern Iraq. Their attacks had so far been concentrated in the center and south of the country, against military bases with a foreign presence and the US embassy in Baghdad. At the end of last September, six rockets hit the outskirts of the Erbil airport from the municipality of Bartella, in the neighboring province of Nineveh, where the militias – integrated into the Iraqi security apparatus – have been established since the victory over the IS and They have become a headache for the population, mostly Christian, in the area. In the opinion of the Iraqi President, Kurdish Barham Saleh, the new attack marks “a dangerous escalation” and is “a criminal terrorist act”.
Last October, the Shiite militias under the umbrella of the paramilitary organization “Hashid Shaabi” (Popular Mobilization, in Arabic) pledged to stop their attacks against American interests on the condition that there be a total withdrawal of the international coalition troops. Washington even threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad if the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi failed to control the actions of the Shiite militias. The truce has been violated on few occasions, including on December 20 with several rockets hitting the US diplomatic legation in the capital.
His withdrawal was requested early last year by the Iraqi Parliament after the US drone attack that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and his right-hand man in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, in the vicinity of Baghdad international airport. Last year the international alliance was handing over control of the military bases to the Iraqi army and reducing its presence. Spain, a member of the coalition, signed its withdrawal last July. “Iraq must be protected against (external) rivalries. We demand restraint and close collaboration between Baghdad and Erbil to bring the culprits to justice,” the head of the UN assistance mission in Iraq (Unami) has requested, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.