Sulaimaniyah, Iraq – It was the most serious attack on the US-led coalition since the Biden administration took power with questions swirling about who was responsible for the rare rocket barrage on Erbil city.
A volley of projectiles targeted the main military base inside Erbil’s airport, which hosts foreign troops deployed as part of the US-led coalition that has helped Iraq fight the armed group ISIL (ISIS) since 2014.
But the rockets struck all over the city’s northwestern sector early Tuesday, killing one foreign civilian contractor and wounding at least nine others, including an American soldier.
Civilian areas near the facility were also hit. One of those injured was in a critical condition, said Aso Hawezi, spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)’s ministry of health, on Wednesday.
A shadowy group calling itself Awliya al-Dam – or the Guardians of the Blood – claimed responsibility and said it would continue to attack “occupation” American forces in Iraq.
The attack was the first in nearly two months after a series of similar incidents – blamed on pro-Iran Shia militias – directed at Western military installations or diplomatic missions in Iraq since 2019.
Major security breach
While assaults on US interests in Iraq have been common over the past few years, it is extremely rare for such incidents to occur in Erbil or the wider KRG.
An official from the KRG’s Peshmerga forces, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, told Al Jazeera the rocket barrage represented a “big security breach for all major Kurdish security agencies”.
“How the rockets entered to the region remains unclear, but it is possible that personnel within the Kurdistan Region’s security and Peshmerga forces collaborated with the perpetrators,” said the source.
According to the official, the rockets were assembled outside of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory and then brought into the region. They were launched from a fruit and vegetable market located 7km (3 miles) away from Erbil’s city centre, he said.
“The range of the rockets are 8km [3.5 miles] and the PMF often uses such rockets,” he added, referring to the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraqi paramilitaries established in 2014 from mostly Shia militia groups to fight ISIL.
“Following this security catastrophe, all main intelligence officials in Erbil should at least be dismissed,” the official said, adding that a financial crisis and internal conflicts have impacted the Peshmerga’s ability to fulfil its security role in the semi-autonomous region.
In a statement on Tuesday, the KRG’s ministry of interior confirmed that rockets were launched from within Iraq’s Kurdish region and that pick-up truck – from which the rockets were believed to have been launched – had been found.
Who is behind it?
The Kurdistan Democratic Party’s official spokesperson, Mahmoud Mohammed, alleged in a statement that a group of fighters with ties to the Iraqi PMF was responsible.
PMF, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, was formally part of Iraq’s armed forces after its establishment but it spawned other armed groups, including pro-Iran factions, that are ideologically affiliated with it.
Mohammed condemned the “heinous terrorist act” and called on the federal government, the international coalition, and the United States to immediately investigate the incident and punish the perpetrators.
The PMF, meanwhile, rejected claims that its factions carried out the attack.
Sayed Ali Hosseini, head of relations at the PMF’s Northern Front, dismissed the allegations, saying its forces had not been in the area the 14 rockets were fired from.
“The PMF is not positioned in the area from where the rockets have been launched, thus we dismiss those accusations that accuse us of being behind the attacks,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.
“We will file lawsuits against anyone who accuses us of carrying out the attacks without proof,” he added.
New armed groups
Hosseini said he did not know Awliya al-Dam and questioned if the little-known group had in fact carried out the attack.
The Erbil security directorate, the US general consulate in Erbil, and the US-led coalition did not respond to requests for comment.
Over the past year, several new armed groups have claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Western diplomatic and security installations in Iraq.
US and Iraqi security officials say these are fronts for pro-Iran factions, including major armed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
According to Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, the attack conveyed a message of intimidation to both the Biden administration and the federal Iraqi government.
She said it reflected that pro-Iran militias can attack anywhere in Iraq, adding that no US position was safe – even in the KRG.
“The fact that this group [Awliya al-Dam] is relatively unfamiliar to security experts doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not connected to more established Iran-sponsored militias in Iraq,” Rose told Al Jazeera via Twitter.
“However, Iran and its proxies embedded within the PMF have begun a new habit of creating a series of offshoot organisations to carry out attacks like we saw in Erbil in order to blur lines of responsibility and create a cover of plausible deniability so that the Iraqi federal government and the US cannot easily impose accountability,” she said.
According to Rose, the incident was a “wake-up call for the Biden administration to assemble a country-specific Iraq policy”, she said, adding the new US administration was made aware “it needs to tread carefully”.
Complete US withdrawal
In December 2019, a US contractor was killed in a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk province, prompting the US to respond with air attacks against the pro-Iran Kataib Hezbollah.
The US had about 5,200 troops deployed in Iraq to fight ISIL in 2014. But since Iraq’s victory over the group in late 2017, Washington has reduced the number of American forces with only 2,500 remaining.
Calls for a complete withdrawal of US troops peaked following rocket attacks on US military and diplomatic sites and the American killing of Iran’s elite Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, and deputy of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a drone strike near Baghdad’s airport in January last year.
But instead of an immediate withdrawal from Erbil, Rose said: “The US should seek to hold those responsible for the attack accountable and work towards supporting the Iraqi federal government in an investigation and connecting the dots between the PMF, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and its offshoots.”