Mortar attack targets Iraqi air base where US troops are stationed

Iraq’s military said late Friday that an air base where US troops are stationed was hit by mortar shells in an attack that resulted in no casualties.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Iraq’s military announced late Friday that an air base where US troops are stationed was hit by mortar shells in an attack that resulted in no casualties.

Balad Air Base is located in Salahuddin Province, about 65 kilometers north of Baghdad, and housed international coalition aircraft and Iraqi F-16s in the war against the Islamic State.

According to a brief statement released by Iraq’s Security Media Cell, three mortars landed inside the strategic base, setting ablaze dry grass.

"The fire was extinguished without any human damage," it added.

Balad is one of the country's largest air bases with an estimated area of ​​25 square kilometers and surrounded by 20 kilometers of security perimeter.

Officials said that American soldiers are still stationed at the base as advisers within the international coalition which continues to aid Iraqi security forces in the fight against the Islamic State’s ongoing insurgency.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes amid escalating tensions in the region between the US and Iran.

Tehran backs several Iraqi militias that make up the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). In an online statement, the PMF claimed that they were not behind the attack and accused “suspicious entities” that conspire against “well-being and stability” in Iraq, adding that they would work “to expose those responsible for these acts” and bring them to justice.

Reports of the incident emerged simultaneously with those of another in which a Katyusha rocket reportedly struck a house in a residential area near Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where multiple government offices and foreign missions are located, including the US embassy.

The attack occurred in the “al-Jadriya neighborhood in the middle of Baghdad” and “there were no losses,” read a second statement from Iraq’s Security Media Cell, released shortly following the incident.

The intended target of the attack is not known, nor who carried it out. Just under a month ago, another Katyusha rocket landed inside the Green Zone, about a kilometer from the sprawling US embassy compound.

The PMF was quick to distance themselves from this attack as well, although Washington accused Tehran's “proxies” of being behind it, a clear reference to PMF militias.

The incidents come shortly after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, despite Tehran's repeated denials, fueling fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping corridor. 

Read more: US blames Iran for attacks on tankers in Gulf of Oman

The US military provided a video that purported to show Iranian personnel on a boat removing an undetonated limpet mine from one of the tankers but Tehran claimed their forces were merely aiding the ship’s crew.

Before this incident, another Iranian boat at the Gulf of Oman fired a rocket at a US drone, an American official told CNN on Friday.

Strains between Washington and Tehran have reached all-time highs a year after the US withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers and then imposed multiple rounds of sanctions that have severely limited Iran’s capacity for trade, notably its oil exports.

Iranian government and military officials have previously threatened that, should they be blocked from exporting their oil, they would close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water which separates the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman through which a significant amount of oil passes to international markets. The Associated Press reported on Saturday that Washington had deployed an aircraft carrier, cruising about 320 kilometers (200 miles) off the shore of Iran in international waters of the Gulf of Oman.

In early May, the US announced new rounds of sanctions on Iran’s metal exports. In response to alleged threats from Tehran and its "proxies" in the region that followed, the US bolstered its military presence in the Middle East.  

Editing by John J. Catherine