Rockets injured US personnel in Iraq, killed contractor: Will Biden act?

The coalition spokesperson Col. Wayne Marotto wrote that one civilian contractor was killed, five injured and one US service member was injured.

A supporter of Hashid Shaabi holds a picture of late Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, October 17, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)
A supporter of Hashid Shaabi holds a picture of late Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, October 17, 2020
Rocket fire landed on coalition forces based near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, the US-led coalition said Monday night. One civilian contractor was killed, five were wounded, and one US service member was wounded, coalition spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto said.
The casualties likely occurred at the coalition’s facilities at Erbil International Airport.
The statement was crafted in such a way as to give the US a lot of outs should it choose not to respond. That is because there is a new US administration, and while the coalition wanted to put a statement out, it didn’t want to paint US Central Command or the White House into a corner.
From years covering the US-led coalition and its former spokesman Col. Myles Caggins III, the weight and responsibility on a spokesperson’s shoulders the night of an attack like this are immense.
The wounding of a US service member is important. When a US contractor was killed at K-1 base near Kirkuk, Iraq, in December 2019, it began a crisis and cycle that led to the US using a drone to kill IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
The US had warned Iran back then to stop rocket attacks on US bases. Iran’s militias in Iraq, directed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and his Kataib Hezbollah, didn’t listen. They upped their attacks on US forces using 107-mm. Katyusha rockets.
After they killed a US contractor, the US responded with airstrikes on December 29. That was two days after Nawres Hamid, a 33-year-old American citizen, had been killed. He had emigrated from Iraq to Sacramento with his family.
The US retaliated for his death. In response, the Badr Organization’s Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Fatah Alliance party in Iraq, as well as Muhandis, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq leader Qais Khazali and Falih al-Fayyadh, let protesters attack the US Embassy on January 1. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out those responsible.
Two days later, Soleimani arrived in Baghdad to meet Muhandis to plan more attacks on the US. Before he could do it, missiles fired by a US drone killed both of them.
What will the new Biden administration do now in response to the killing of a contractor and the wounding of Americans? This is a serious attack. Last March, the US moved air-defense systems to Iraq, including Patriots to Ayn al-Assad and C-RAMs to the US Embassy compound in Baghdad. It’s not clear what else the US has to protect forces.
The US has consolidated its forces in Erbil, Ayn al-Assad and Baghdad, withdrawing from a dozen other facilities. In 2018, it warned Iran against attacks on US facilities. But pro-Iran groups continue the attacks. They want the US to leave. They have been very successful so far. The US has wrapped up most of its work in Iraq.
Erbil is one place Americans have been safe. The Kurdistan Region, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, is warm and friendly to the US, even if some resent how the Trump administration didn’t support Kurds in Kirkuk or the retention of Sinjar and also withdrew from part of Syria. But in general, the region is afraid of pro-Iranian encroachment and Shi’ite militias.
Turkey and the PKK are also fighting in the mountains. But the leaders in the Kurdistan Region, such as President Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masoud Barzani, and PUK leaders Qubad Talabani and Lahur Talabani care about the region’s safety. They don’t want to be dragged into a conflict between the US and Iran.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has also tried to confront pro-Iranian militants, which he knows use his country, attack protesters and traffic weapons.
The US will have to decide if it will respond or remain silent or just “virtue signal” a statement. While some say not every crisis is a test for the new Biden administration, clearly Iran will look at the US response.
In the past, pro-Iranian groups killed hundreds of Americans. The question is whether they can target Erbil and get away with it. The corollary is whether the US will now move much-needed air defense to Erbil.