The U.S. and its Kurdish allies in Iraq believe Iran was complicit in a deadly rocket attack Monday against an airport housing American forces near the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil that killed at least one contractor from the U.S.-led coalition and injured a U.S. service member among many others, multiple sources confirm to U.S. News.
The U.S. military headquarters in the region and the semi-autonomous Kurdish authority there say an initial investigation indicates that proxy militia with clear Iranian backing, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, carried out the attack, an American source in the region familiar with the assessments tells U.S. News.
A separate source in the Kurdish government in Irbil who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly attributed the attack to “an outlawed group working under the banner of PMF and using PMF resources.”
Analysts say that an attack at this level – one that endangers American lives and risks massive retaliation – would have to have been authorized by Tehran.
“The decision to attack an Iraqi military base hosting American soldiers and civilian contractors with its attendant risk of killing a U.S. citizen is not a decision that can be made by an Iran-aligned Iraqi militia without prior consultation with Tehran,” says Randa Slim, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Iran, however, early Tuesday denied any involvement in orchestrating the provocative attack, which creates serious complications for the Biden administration as it seeks to reopen negotiations with Tehran.
“These rumors are strongly rejected, the suspicious attempts to attribute the attack to Iran are also strongly condemned,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters Tuesday morning. “Iran views Iraq’s stability and security [as] a key issue for the region and its neighbors, and rejects any action that disturbs peace and order in this country.”
U.S. Central Command and the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, did not immediately respond on the record to requests for comment.
A spokesman for the U.S. coalition leading the war against the Islamic State group first released information about the attack late Monday, saying roughly a dozen 107 mm rockets were launched against a joint military installation adjacent to the civilian airport late at night local time. Army Col. Wayne Marotto said that, as of early Tuesday morning, nine people had been injured – the unnamed U.S. service member and eight civilian contractors – and five Americans were undergoing examinations for potential concussions. He added that the local KRG was leading the investigation.
The Associated Press later reported the rockets originated from Kirkuk Province south of Irbil. A little known Shiite Muslim militant group, Saraya Awliya al-Dam or the Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it fired 24 rockets that penetrated the airport’s defenses.
The KRG, whose Peshmerga troops for the last decade have served as an integral ground component of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State group and other extremists, issued a statement late Monday saying, “any attack targeting the U.S.-led Global Coalition forces in the Kurdistan Region is an attack on the Peshmerga forces.”
American officials issued blistering statements almost immediately.
“We are outraged by today’s rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late Monday. “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.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Iraqi counterpart Tuesday morning and condemned the attack, according to a readout of their phone call.
“The Iraqi people deserve a secure and stable Iraq, and the United States remains committed to supporting our Iraqi partners in their efforts to defend Iraq’s sovereignty,” according to a statement from the Pentagon. “Both leaders reaffirmed commitment to the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq.”
The incident serves as the first major national security test of President Joe Biden’s presidency and targets a key component of his foreign policy, namely restarting negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Analysts see this week’s attack as a way to increase pressure on the White House to return swiftly to negotiations that could ease crippling sanctions.
Biden inherited a relationship in tatters between Washington and Tehran. Then-President Donald Trump oversaw systematic attempts to dismantle the methods of oversight and communication with Iran that the Obama administration had put in place and instead pursued a relentless campaign of punishment based on diplomatic and economic sanctions and harsh military practices.
Trump ordered the killing of notorious Iranian leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in the first days of 2020, sparking a military crisis that almost brought the two countries into all-out war. Iran has engaged in a few acts of retribution, including launching rockets against U.S. bases in Iraq days later, injuring dozens of American troops, but has made clear it does not yet believe it has exacted full revenge – chiefly chasing the U.S. out of Iraq as Soleimani sought to do. And Iran remains on a war footing in the region, including through other proxy conflicts, such as in Yemen.
However, Tehran indicated it would be willing to ease tensions through new talks with Biden – hopes for peace that have stalemated in the first few days of the administration amid disagreements over who acts first.
Reports have emerged in recent days that Iran is now eyeing new attacks on American, Israeli and Emirati embassies in Africa as a new method of punishing the U.S. for Soleimani’s death, as well as for the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist believed to have been assassinated by Israel in November.
Iranian proxy forces in Iraq will likely continue attacks on supply lines and transport convoys as they have in recent months. It remains unclear whether Iran will allow for more high-profile attacks that risk American lives, such as this week’s, in the near future.