BAGHDAD — Fourteen rockets struck outside Irbil international airport near where U.S. forces are based in northern Iraq late Monday, killing one non-US civilian contractor and wounding five Americans, according to U.S. defense officials.
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the attack, which sparked fears of a new escalation in the region, according to a White House official.
More than a dozen 107mm rockets hit areas between the civilian airport in the semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region and the nearby base hosting U.S. troops at 9:30 p.m on Monday. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but a U.S. defense official said the attack was launched by a Shia militia group.
It is too soon to say whether Iran directed the attack, the person said, but previous attacks by militia groups on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq have been linked to Tehran.
In total, five Americans were injured in the attack: four civilian contractors and one service member, according to two defense officials. In addition, one non-U.S. contractor were killed and two non-U.S. contractors were injured.
At least two civilians were also wounded and material damage was caused to cars and other property, security officials said, without providing more details. A statement from Kurdistan’s interior ministry said “several people” had been injured based on a preliminary investigation. The rockets were launched from an area south of Irbil near the border with Kirkuk province and fell on some residential areas close to the airport.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh condemned the attack, saying in a statement posted online that it marked a “dangerous escalation.”
Kurdish authorities cautioning Irbil residents to stay away from areas that were targeted and remain in their homes, according to a statement from the interior ministry.
Attacks targeting Irbil airport are rare. Monday’s attack was the first to strike the area in five months.
On Sept. 30, when six rockets hit near the airport. Kurdish authorities said they had been launched from a pickup truck in the nearby town of Bartella in Ninevah province, which falls under federal government control. Kurdish authorities had blamed Shiite militia groups.
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.
Rocket attacks have frequently target the U.S. presence in Baghdad, including the U.S. Embassy, as well as convoys ferrying materials for the U.S.-led coalition.
The frequency of attacks diminished late last year ahead of Biden’s inauguration. The U.S. under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.
Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.
U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.