Kurdistan Region condemns rocket attack near Erbil airport, blames Iran-backed militias

The Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister, Ministry of Interior, Counter Terrorism Department, and various other officials condemned on Wednesday an attack earlier that day in which rockets were fired into the vicinity of Erbil International Airport.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister, Ministry of Interior, Counter Terrorism Department, and various other officials condemned on Wednesday an attack earlier that day in which rockets were fired into the vicinity of Erbil International Airport.

Most public statements coming from within the autonomous federal region of Iraq directly blamed Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) based in Nineveh province for the action and called on Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad to carry out an immediate investigation and hold those behind the attack responsible.

“Today, at 08:30 pm, six rockets were launched towards Erbil International Airport, and, fortunately, missed their targets and caused no damages,” an interior ministry statement said. 

“The rockets were fired from a pickup truck at the Bartella region between the Sheikh Amir and Tarjalah villages,” which, the statement explained, are under the control of the 30th Brigade of the PMF, known in Arabic as the Hashd al-Shaabi.

“Our special team is investigating in detail to get more information. We strongly condemn this terrorist attack, at the same time we are ready to counter any attack,” wrote the ministry, adding that an investigation by KRG “specialized teams” is ongoing.

“While we strongly condemn this cowardly terrorist act, we declare our full readiness to deter any aggression, and we demand the federal government to take the necessary measures.”

Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani made his own strongly-worded statement on social media, which read, “The KRG will not tolerate any attempt to undermine Kurdistan’s stability and our response will be robust.”

He also said he had spoken to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi “on the importance of holding the perpetrators accountable.”

Col. Wayne Marotto, the Spokesman for the US-led Coalition to defeat the Islamic State, confirmed on his official Twitter account, “Initial reports that Indirect Fire did not land on Coalition Forces in Erbil tonight. There was no damage or casualties. Incident is under investigation.”

The Directorate General of Counter Terrorism (CTD), which is part of the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC), in a statement on Facebook said they have obtained photo’s of the cars “that there were used by Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) militias who targeted Erbil international airport.”

The rocket attack comes after the US warned Iraqi officials twice on Sept. 22 and then again on Saturday that it was beginning to take preliminary steps to close the American embassy in Baghdad following the Iraqi government’s repeated failure to stop attacks by the pro-Iranian PMF militias that target US and Coalition targets. 

Read More: US will close Baghdad embassy—but keep Erbil consulate open 

Despite of the warning, the attacks have continued in Baghdad this week, including one rocket attack on Monday that struck a house in a residential area near the sprawling Baghdad International Airport complex, killing five civilians. The attack was sharply condemned by the US on the following day. 

Read More: US condemns rocket attack in Baghdad

Former longtime Iraqi Foreign Minister and KDP Politburo member Hoshyar Zebari posted on his Twitter account that the attack was “yet another escalation to disrupt security in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan by the same groups who are attacking US Embassy in Baghdad and its convoys.”

He added, that the “cowardly” attack was carried out by Waad Qaddo, the recently dismissed former head of the PMF’s 30th Brigade. Qaddo was sanctioned by the US in July 2019 for human rights violations against civilians in ethnically and religiously diverse rural areas outside Mosul known as the Nineveh Plain.

Zebari added that action “is needed to stop it,” and that Qaddo should be “punished.”

According to unconfirmed reports, Iraqi security forces have arrested a commander of a PMF force operating within the area where the rockets were launched.

Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told Kurdistan 24 that Erbil is the only location to which US personnel and Western diplomats could safely relocate amid reports of a pending US strike on Iran’s proxies ahead of the US elections, saying, “foreign missions already had started preparations.”

He said that the attack “came from Ninewah province, 50km away. Once a haven for (ISIS), it’s now a bastion for Iran’s proxies. Iran is showcasing its reach and infrastructure but it’s also signaling to the US that a de-capitation campaign against its militias won’t be enough.”

It was, he concluded, “a dangerous game to play.”

In January, Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles, reportedly from Iran, at airbases in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region that house US and coalition forces. This came in response to a US drone strike that killed Qasim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, and a top PMF leader as their convoy left Baghdad International Airport. 

In response, the US in April deployed Patriot air defense missiles in Erbil and the al-Asad Airbase, in western Iraq.

This time, however, multiple official sources appear to agree that the Iranian-backed PMF forces, part of Iraq’s official security apparatus, are directly responsible and launched the attack from inside Iraq. Such a development threatens to increase the involvement of the Kurdistan Region in, and to substantially escalate, an already complicated and contentious situation involving multiple governments.

Editing by John J. Catherine