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Contractor killed, nine injured in rocket attack on US base in Kurdistan’s capital

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 15, 2021

A rocket attack killed a civilian contractor and injured nine others, including a U.S. service member, at an airfield in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region Monday, the military said.

Of 14 rockets fired, three 107 mm rounds hit Irbil International Airport, Army Col. Wayne Marotto, a military spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said Tuesday in a statement on Twitter. The slain contractor was not an American, he said.

Eight of the wounded were contractors, Marotto said. Five Americans, including the service member, were being examined for concussions, he said.

The commercial airport shares space with a base for U.S. and other anti-Islamic State coalition troops.

Three civilians were injured by rockets that overflew the base and hit residential areas, Kurdistan Regional Government officials said.

The small truck that fired them was found between Irbil and Gwer, a town about 30 miles to the city’s southwest, the region’s Interior Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

A similar vehicle was used in the last attack on the airport in September, it said. Such trucks involved in attacks elsewhere in the country are typically modified with dozens of concealed makeshift launchers and set to fire on a timer.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to support an Iraqi investigation and efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable, he said in a statement after a call with Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani.

“We are outraged by today’s rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan region,” Blinken said. “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.”

The group Saraya Awliya al-Dam, whose name means “Guardians of Blood Brigades,” claimed responsibility in a statement shared online.

They previously claimed several attacks on contractor convoys carrying U.S. military equipment and supplies, mostly in southern Iraq and near Baghdad, said Evan Kohlmann, one of the founders of the risk intelligence firm Flashpoint.

Security camera footage showed one explosion hit a busy road in a residential area, spraying fragments into the air. It was posted on Twitter by the news site Rudaw, which also reported that a rocket hit an apartment building and wounded two people.

Several videos online showed a large fire visible in the dark from hundreds of yards away. It was not immediately clear where the fire was located, but one area resident posted that it was on the edge of the airport.

Photos shared online also showed damaged cars, while other videos captured the sound of announcements at the U.S. Consulate General in Irbil telling personnel to seek cover away from windows and await further instructions.

The airfield was hit by a barrage of six rockets on Sept. 30, 2020, which officials have said were fired from a truck in nearby Nineveh province.

Attacks on bases housing U.S. forces, often using 107mm Katyusha rockets, have occurred frequently in the past two years, particularly in and around Baghdad, where they have also hit civilian areas near military and diplomatic facilities.

The U.S. has attributed the attacks to Shiite militias, which are backed by Iran and have pushed for the withdrawal of American troops, some 2,500 of which assist Iraqi security forces battling ISIS.

Following a rocket attack at a base near Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor in late 2019, the Pentagon launched airstrikes on militia sites in Iraq and eastern Syria, leading to a series of escalations with the militias and Iran in early 2020.

The episode culminated with Tehran launching a dozen missiles at the Irbil airport and western Iraq’s al Asad Air Base in January 2020, which wounded over 100 American troops.

The U.S. also retaliated with strikes on militia sites last March, after rockets that fell on Camp Taji killed two U.S. troops and a British medic, and wounded over a dozen others. The U.S. withdrew from Camp Taji last summer.

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland