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Rocket attack near US base in Iraqi Kurdistan kills 1, injures 8

Victim was foreign civilian contractor working with coalition forces, Iraq president calls incident a ‘dangerous escalation;’ previous attacks blamed on Iran-backed groups

Security forces gather following a rocket attack in Irbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on February 15, 2021. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
Security forces gather following a rocket attack in Irbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on February 15, 2021. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED / AFP)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Rockets struck outside Irbil international airport near where US forces are based in northern Iraq late Monday, killing one US-led coalition contractor and wounding at least eight people, Iraqi security and coalition officials reported, sparking fears of new hostilities.

At least three rockets hit areas between the civilian airport in the semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region and the nearby base hosting US troops at 9:30 p.m. No one immediately claimed responsibility.

One civilian contractor with the coalition was killed and five others wounded, a coalition spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto, said in a statement posted on social media. One US service member was also injured, he said. He did not reveal the nationality of the dead contractor and said this was under investigation.

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.

Shattered glass is pictured on the floor of a shop following a rocket attack in Irbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on February 15, 2021. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED / AFP)

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 US presence in Baghdad, including the US Embassy, as well as convoys ferrying materials for the US-led coalition.

The frequency of attacks diminished late last year ahead of US President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The US 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 US 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.

US 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.

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