Wednesday, February 24, 2021

‘Wake up call’: Deadly Iraq rocket assault places stress on US

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Sulaimaniyah, Iraq – It was essentially the most severe assault on the US-led coalition for the reason that Biden administration took energy with questions swirling about who was accountable for the uncommon rocket barrage on Erbil metropolis.

A volley of projectiles focused the principle army base inside Erbil’s airport, which hosts overseas troops deployed as a part of the US-led coalition that has helped Iraq battle the armed group ISIL (ISIS) since 2014.

But the rockets struck everywhere in the metropolis’s northwestern sector early Tuesday, killing one overseas civilian contractor and wounding not less than 9 others, together with an American soldier.

Civilian areas near the ability had been additionally hit. One of these injured was in a vital situation, mentioned Aso Hawezi, spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)’s ministry of well being, on Wednesday.

A shadowy group calling itself Awliya al-Dam – or the Guardians of the Blood – claimed duty and mentioned it could proceed to assault “occupation” American forces in Iraq.

The assault was the primary in nearly two months after a sequence of comparable incidents – blamed on pro-Iran Shia militias – directed at Western army installations or diplomatic missions in Iraq since 2019.

000 9346AXThe UN warned Iraq might spin uncontrolled after a rocket assault on the Kurdish regional capital Erbil killed one civilian and wounded a number of others [File: Safin Hamed/AFP]

Major safety breach

While assaults on US pursuits in Iraq have been frequent over the previous few years, this can be very uncommon for such incidents to happen in Erbil or the broader KRG.

An official from the KRG’s Peshmerga forces, who spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of he was not authorised to speak to the media, instructed 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,” mentioned the supply.

According to the official, the rockets had been assembled outdoors of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory after which introduced into the area. They had been launched from a fruit and vegetable market positioned 7km (three miles) away from Erbil’s metropolis centre, he mentioned.

“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 largely Shia militia teams to battle ISIL.

“Following this security catastrophe, all main intelligence officials in Erbil should at least be dismissed,” the official mentioned, including {that a} monetary disaster and inner conflicts have impacted the Peshmerga’s means to fulfil its safety position within the semi-autonomous area.

In a press release on Tuesday, the KRG’s ministry of inside confirmed that rockets had been launched from inside Iraq’s Kurdish area and that pick-up truck – from which the rockets had been believed to have been launched – had been discovered.

2021 02 15T192919Z 1985347468 RC27TL9E42HD RTRMADP 3 IRAQ SECURITYSmoke rising over Erbil after the rocket assaults near the airport on February 15, 2021 [Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Who is behind it?

The Kurdistan Democratic Party’s official spokesperson, Mahmoud Mohammed, alleged in a press release {that a} group of fighters with ties to the Iraqi PMF was accountable.

PMF, often known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, was formally a part of Iraq’s armed forces after its institution nevertheless it spawned different armed teams, together with pro-Iran factions, which can be ideologically affiliated with it.

Mohammed condemned the “heinous terrorist act” and known as on the federal authorities, the worldwide coalition, and the United States to instantly examine the incident and punish the perpetrators.

The PMF, in the meantime, rejected claims that its factions carried out the assault.

Sayed Ali Hosseini, head of relations on the PMF’s Northern Front, dismissed the allegations, saying its forces had not been within the space the 14 rockets had been 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 instructed Al Jazeera in a cellphone interview.

“We will file lawsuits against anyone who accuses us of carrying out the attacks without proof,” he added.

New armed teams

Hosseini mentioned he didn’t know Awliya al-Dam and questioned if the little-known group had the truth is carried out the assault.

The Erbil safety directorate, the US basic consulate in Erbil, and the US-led coalition didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Over the previous yr, a number of new armed teams have claimed duty for rocket assaults on Western diplomatic and safety installations in Iraq.

US and Iraqi safety officers say these are fronts for pro-Iran factions, together with main armed teams reminiscent of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

2021 02 16T115500Z 1015705687 RC2NTL9GXB0J RTRMADP 3 IRAQ SECURITYA person in a hospital mattress after he was wounded throughout a rocket assault on US-led forces at Erbil Airport [File: Azad Lashkari/Reuters]

‘Wake-up call’

According to Caroline Rose, a senior analyst on the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, the assault conveyed a message of intimidation to each the Biden administration and the federal Iraqi authorities.

She mentioned it mirrored that pro-Iran militias can assault wherever in Iraq, including that no US place was secure – even within 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 instructed Al Jazeera by way of 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 mentioned.

According to Rose, the incident was a “wake-up call for the Biden administration to assemble a country-specific Iraq policy”, she mentioned, including the brand new US administration was made conscious “it needs to tread carefully”.

Complete US withdrawal

In December 2019, a US contractor was killed in a rocket assault on a base in Kirkuk province, prompting the US to reply with air assaults in opposition to the pro-Iran Kataib Hezbollah.

The US had about 5,200 troops deployed in Iraq to battle ISIL in 2014. But since Iraq’s victory over the group in late 2017, Washington has diminished the variety of American forces with solely 2,500 remaining.

Calls for a whole withdrawal of US troops peaked following rocket assaults on US army and diplomatic websites 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 final yr.

But as a substitute of an instantaneous withdrawal from Erbil, Rose mentioned: “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.”

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