Erbil rocket attack by Iran-backed militia was to send message to US, experts say

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A rocket attack targeting US-led forces in the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan northern region of Iraq on Monday killed a civilian contractor and injured a US service member as well as six others.

The attack was claimed by a shadowy Shia militia group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam, or Guardians of the Blood, that Kurdish officials believe has links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Analysts and officials who spoke to Al Arabiya English added these attacks may have been used to send multiple regional and international messages by Iranian proxies.

The barrage of rockets that hit the US-led coalition military air base at Erbil International Airport as well as civilian areas close to the airport was launched from a region stretching from Gweir to Debeis in Kirkuk on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) border.

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“A vehicle transporting a Fajr rocket launcher made in Iran was found in this region, which is an open space that is difficult to control both by the Peshmerga or the Iraqi military,” Kifah Mahmoud, speaker for former president Massoud Barzani said.

Mahmoud explained that the style of the attack and the use of Fajr rockets bore similarities to previous attacks involving little known Iran-backed militias. On September 30, when six rockets struck areas near the Erbil airport, Kurdish authorities said the rockets had been launched from a pickup truck in the Nineveh province, which falls under federal government control.

About a dozen groups similar to the Guardians of the Blood have surged in the past year, claiming rocket attacks carried out against western interests in Iraq. US and Iraqi security officials say they are front groups for prominent pro-Iran factions, namely Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which are part of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

“The American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, even in Kurdistan, where we promise we will carry out other qualitative operations,” the Awliyaa al-Dam said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

Tensions soared in the Middle East last year after a US drone strike killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes in January.

Journalist and Kurdish expert Wladirmir Van Wilgenburh said the attack could be one way for Iran to send a direct message to the new US Biden administration as tensions remain high in the region.

“Former President Trump tended to respond immediately to any attack, sending B-52 [bombers] and Nimitz class aircraft carriers to the region. The Erbil attack could be one way to see how the new Biden administration will respond,” he said.

“Iran is as well unhappy to see Iraqi Kurds close to the US.”

Since Iraq declared victory against ISIS in late 2017, the US-led coalition has been reduced by around 3,500 troops. Most are located at the Erbil airport military complex.

“We are outraged by today’s rocket attack,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement, vowing to “hold accountable those responsible.”

Van Wilgenburg believes nonetheless other reasons could have motivated the attack.

“Another possibility is that the [pro-Iran PMUs] are unhappy with the Sinjar security agreement that pushed out their forces from the region,” Van Wilgenburg explained. Sinjar is an area located on the border with Syria.

Adding to tensions are the complex negotiations over oil revenue shares taking placed between Baghdad and Erbil. “The attack could be one way to undermine these negotiations,” he added.

Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish region, condemned the assault “in the strongest terms”.

“The Barzani government has demanded an investigation and an Iraqi and Kurdish committee has been charged of it. Both Erbil and Baghdad know that these militias’ goal is to destroy the state. The KRG stability is part of a wall they want to bring down to create chaos,” Mahmoud said.

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