People stand next to a damaged roof after a rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Irbil International Airport in Irbil, Iraq, Feb. 16, 2021.
People stand next to a damaged roof after a rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Irbil International Airport in Irbil, Iraq, Feb. 16, 2021.

A rocket attack in northern Iraq late Monday killed a contractor for the U.S.-led coalition and injured at least nine other people, drawing international condemnation.

Coalition spokesman U.S. Army Col. Wayne Marotto said early Tuesday a total of 14 rockets were launched, and that three hit an airbase housing U.S. troops near Irbil’s airport.

Security forces gather following a rocket attack in Irbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, Feb. 15, 2021.

Marotto said the contractor killed was not an American, and that the injured included eight other civilian contractors and a U.S. service member.

A little-known group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We are outraged by today’s rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement late Monday. “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. I have reached out to Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to discuss the incident and to pledge our support for all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible.”

Barzani said on Twitter he had spoken with Blinken “about the cowardly attack” and that the two sides would “coordinate closely in the investigation.”

The last coalition deaths from hostile acts in Iraq came nearly a year ago when a rocket attack on a base north of Baghdad killed two U.S. service members and one from Britain.  Tensions have escalated between militias aligned with Iran on one side and U.S. forces, their Iraqi and Kurdish allies on the other side.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh tweeted that the attack marked a "dangerous escalation and a criminal terrorist act.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, denounced the attack and denied accusations that Iran participated in the attack, saying they are “suspicious attempts to attribute it” to the Middle Eastern power.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was “outraged” by the attack and will hold those responsible accountable.

The U.S. Defense Department said in a statement that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by phone with his Iraqi counterpart.

“The Iraqi people deserve a secure and stable Iraq, and the United States remains committed to support our Iraqi partners in their efforts to defend Iraq’s sovereignty,” the statement said. “Both leaders reaffirmed commitment to the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq.”

A man is treated at a hospital after he was injured during last night's rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Irbil International Airport, in Irbil, Iraq, Feb. 16, 2021.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the Biden administration “reserves the right to respond in the time and the manner of our choosing” but that the administration would “wait for attribution to be concluded first before we can take any additional steps.”

The head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said such “heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability.”

“Iraq must be shielded from external rivalries,” she tweeted Tuesday.  “We call for restraint and for close Baghdad-Erbil collaboration to bring culprits to justice.”

The head of the U.N.’s political mission in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, also condemned the attack.

“Such reckless attempts to inflame tensions pose grave threats to Iraq’s stability,” Hennis-Plasschaert told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. “Close collaboration between Baghdad and Erbil to bring the culprits to justice, is now of the greatest importance.”

The group Saraya Awliya al-Dam said it targeted the base over its "American occupation" in Iraq.

Bob Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement the attack underscores the ongoing need for tight security in Iraq.

“This latest attack demonstrates the importance of robust security cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and those of Iraqi Kurdistan; and I encourage the United States to continue to support security coordination efforts,” he said.

The vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Marco Rubio, said blamed Iran for the attack.

“Iran cannot hide behind its proxy forces in Iraq, and the world must make clear that the cost of harming U.S. personnel and our allies is high: international condemnation and swift retribution. Iran’s sponsorship of these groups also serves as a reminder that Khamenei cannot be trusted to honor international agreements and why Iran must never get close to a nuclear weapon.”

The Biden administration is considering whether to return to the 2016 agreement with Iran and global powers aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the deal in 2018.

 

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