Details emerged on Tuesday after a deadly attack on a base housing US and coalition forces at Erbil International Airport on Monday evening. Two rocket launchers, capable of firing salvos of 10 rockets each, were found attached to a vehicle that had been blown up near Erbil.
Erbil is the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. US forces have been concentrated there after withdrawing from half a dozen places across Iraq in 2020. In September, pro-Iranian militias targeted Erbil with rockets. Iran also targeted Erbil in its January rocket fire at US forces.
This shows that Iran knows the location of US forces in Erbil. We also know that pro-Iranian militias, which number around 100,000 fighters in Iraq, are deeply entwined with Iraq’s security forces. These include terrorist groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as well as large militias such as Badr and its Shebek 30th Brigade in the Nineveh Plains west of Erbil.
These groups have been around for decades in some cases, dating to the Iran-Iraq War, when some Iraqi Shi’ites joined Iran’s IRGC. Later, the militias were formalized after 2003, and in 2014, a fatwa urged more of them to fight ISIS. In 2018, they became an official paramilitary force, a hybrid of Hezbollah and the IRGC.
In 2019, Iran ordered Kataib Hezbollah to begin firing rockets at US forces in Iraq as US-Iran tensions grew. After the US killed Kataib leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January 2020, the militias shifted tactics to using new, largely fake, groups to carry out the attacks. These would consist of hard-core members linked to Kataib, but they would be branded under new names. This may have been what led to the creation of Awliya al-Dam, the group that claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack.
We now know that 14 rockets were detected by the US and that four landed in the US compound at Erbil International Airport. This is a sprawling area near the central part of the airport where coalition assets are based. Ten rockets landed in other areas of Erbil, several kilometers away.
Five contractors were wounded, one US service member was wounded, and one contractor was killed. The last time a contractor for the coalition was killed was at K-1, near Kirkuk, in December 2019. That killing led to a cycle of reprisals and protests that led to the US killing IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.
The Kurdistan Region released photos of the rocket launchers used. These are typical Iranian-style 107-mm. rockets welded with five tubes on top of five tubes. They were positioned on a vehicle.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, commander in chief of the armed forces, has ordered “the formation of a joint investigation committee with the authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to find out who is behind the rocket attack near Erbil Airport, which led to the injury of a number of people.” Iraq’s Nineveh governor said rockets were not fired from his area.
Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “about the cowardly attack on Erbil. We agreed to coordinate closely in the investigation to identify the outlaws behind it.”
The US State Department said it was outraged by the attack.
“Initial reports indicate that the attacks killed one civilian contractor and injured several members of the coalition, including one American service member and several American contractors,” Blinken said. “We express our condolences to the loved ones of the civilian contractor killed in this attack and to the innocent Iraqi people and their families who are suffering these ruthless acts of violence. I have reached out to Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to discuss the incident and to pledge our support for all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible.”
A Twitter account claiming to have inside knowledge about the attack said the rockets were smuggled in a Kia car into the area near Erbil from Nineveh Plains. The missiles began their journey in an area near Bartella, a Christian town in Nineveh Plains occupied by the Badr 30th Brigade’s Shebek minority units. The rockets were brought in and perhaps assembled later.
The report alleges that the rockets were fired at the extended end of their range, which is thought to be about 10 km. It’s not clear, but the radius of strikes in Erbil indicates one salvo went astray, and the other hit the US compound. Was that to terrorize the rest of the civilians in the area or a mistake?
Last September, larger Grad rockets were used, and in January, Iran used ballistic missiles to target the airport. The US apparently has not installed air defenses in Erbil, or if they have, the radar and defenses did not detect the rockets.
There is lack of clarity on this issue. The US has C-RAM and Patriot air defense in other parts of Iraq. It also has access to other air-defense systems, such as two Iron Dome batteries the US acquired last year.
The evidence points to pro-Iranian militias launching Monday’s attack because it is similar to other types of attacks against US forces since 2019. The message from Iran is not clear because the US is supposedly seeking to reduce tensions with Tehran.
However, Iran and its allies in Iraq have vowed to remove US forces. This aims to threaten the Kurdistan Region and its key airport. US officials, such as Brett McGurk, are very familiar with this area and will have to discuss potential responses with the White House.
US president Donald Trump twice ordered airstrike retaliations for these attacks, in December 2019 and last March. It is unclear if the Biden administration will consider the same.
Key issues involve the severity of the wounds suffered by the contractors and the US service member, as well as the nationalities of the contractors.