A rocket attack on a US airbase in the Kurdish region of Iraq has killed one civilian contractor and injured eight other people, sparking fears of escalation in the first serious test of Joe Biden’s policy towards Iran.
A volley of approximately 14 rockets was fired at the base hosting US troops next to the airport in the region’s main city of Erbil late on Monday, which witnesses told local television appeared to come from an area to the south.
Three landed inside the base while others fell on residential areas nearby, killing one person identified by a US coalition spokesperson as a foreign national, but not a US citizen, and injuring one US service member. At least two Iraqi civilians were also injured and several cars and property damaged.
It was the most deadly attack in almost a year to hit US-led coalition forces deployed to fight Islamic State in Iraq, where tensions between the US, its Iraqi and Kurdish allies on one side and Iran-aligned militias on the other soared during the Trump presidency’s “maximum pressure” stance on the Islamic republic.
Western military and diplomatic sites have been targeted since 2019 by Katyusha rockets, roadside explosives and sometimes direct fire, attacks the US has blamed on pro-Iranian paramilitary forces, but most of the violence has taken place in and around the capital, Baghdad.
The rare attack on Erbil was claimed by a little-known Shia group calling itself Awliya al-Dam, or Guardians of Blood – one of a dozen or so newly formed small organisations believed to be fronts for prominent factions funded and directed by Iran hostile to the US such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. The group previously claimed responsibility last August for two bombings targeting US military convoys.
As president, Donald Trump had said further deaths of US civilians would be a red line and would provoke US escalation in Iraq, making Monday’s attack an early challenge for the Biden administration, which is seeking to revive the nuclear deal – scrapped by Trump in 2018 – between Iran and world powers.
Trump retaliated to the December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk with a drone strike last year which killed the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and the powerful Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The tit-for-tat attack on Iraqi soil brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.
The last deadly attack was in March 2020 on the Taji military camp north of Baghdad, in which the UK servicewoman L/Cpl Brodie Gillon, as well as one US contractor and one US service member, were killed.
“We are outraged by today’s rocket attack,” the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said in a statement on Monday evening, vowing to “hold accountable those responsible”.
“We express our condolences to the loved ones of the civilian contractor killed in this attack, and to the innocent Iraqi people and their families who are suffering these ruthless acts of violence,” he added.
Hoshiyar Zebari, a politburo member of the Kurdistan Democratic party, said security officials were investigating the source of the attack. “There will be consequences against the culprits. This aggression will not stand,” he tweeted.
The Iraqi president, Barham Salih, said in a statement posted online that the incident marked a “dangerous escalation”, while Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish region, condemned the assault “in the strongest terms”.
Kurdish authorities temporarily closed Erbil’s airport and have cautioned the city’s residents to stay away from targeted areas and remain home if possible.
On Tuesday morning, Awliya al-Dam said it would carry out more attacks on US forces. “The American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, even in Kurdistan, where we promise we will carry out other qualitative operations,” a statement from the group said, according to the Site Intelligence Group, an NGO that tracks online activity of armed organisations.
The frequency of attacks blamed on Iran-linked militias had diminished late last year before Joe Biden’s inauguration, though Tehran is now urging the US to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted international sanctions in return for curbs to the country’s nuclear programme.
Iraqi leaders, stuck in the middle of the tensions between their two biggest allies, last month asked Tehran to intervene to stop rocket attacks on diplomatic missions in Baghdad, calling the violence an “embarrassment” to Iraq’s already fragile central government.
Since Iraq declared victory against Isis in late 2017, the coalition has been reduced to less than 3,500 troops in total, 2,500 of them Americans, who no longer take part in combat operations. Most are concentrated at the military complex at the Erbil airport.