US-led coalition: Rocket attack in Iraq killed contractor

Samya Kullab
Associated Press

Baghdad – A U.S.-led coalition contractor was killed and an unspecified number of other civilians were wounded when a barrage of rockets struck outside an airport near where U.S. forces are based in northern Iraq, Iraqi security and coalition officials said.

More than a dozen rockets hit late Monday in areas between the civilian international airport in the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region and the nearby base hosting U.S. troops.

Workers clear debris in the aftermath of rocket attacks in Irbil, Iraq, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

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A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack.

U.S. Army Col. Wayne Marotto said Tuesday a civilian contractor with the coalition who was not a U.S. citizen was killed. He did not provide further details about the citizenship of the killed contractor.

Marotto also said a U.S. military serviceman and eight civilian contractors were wounded in the assault. An unspecified number of Iraqi and Kurdish civilians were wounded as rockets hit busy residential areas close to the airport.

The coalition confirmed that 107 mm rockets, a total of 14, were launched, with three impacting an airbase hosting U.S. troops.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. officials were working with Iraq to determine exactly who was responsible. “I will convey that we are outraged” by the attack, she said.

The Trump administration had said that the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke a U.S. escalation in Iraq against Iran-backed groups. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in province of Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war. The official position of President Joe Biden is not yet clear.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was pledging its support for investigating the attack and holding accountable those who were responsible.

It was the first attack since September to target Irbil’s airport. Coalition forces based close to the Baghdad airport have been a frequent target for rocket attacks, which the U.S. has blamed Iran-backed Shiite militia groups.

Iran’s foreign ministry rejected and strongly condemned any accusations against the country over Monday’s incident. The ministry’s spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said that “suspicious attempts to attribute it (the incident) to Iran are also strongly condemned.”

The attacks drew condemnation from senior Iraqi, U.S. and other Western officials.

U.N. Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert deplored the deadly assault and called for national unity.

“Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability. Iraq must be shielded from (external) rivalries,” she said in comments posted on Twitter. “We call for restraint and for close Baghdad-Erbil collaboration to bring culprits to justice.”


Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this report.