Baghdad – At least 10 rockets slammed into a military base in western Iraq hosting U.S.-led coalition troops on Wednesday, security sources said, leaving one civilian contractor dead.
The attack on the sprawling Ain al-Assad base in Iraq's western desert comes after several weeks of escalating U.S.-Iran tensions on Iraqi soil — and just two days before a historic visit by Pope Francis.
Ain al-Assad hosts both Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops helping fight the Islamic State group, as well as the unmanned drones the coalition uses to surveil jihadist sleeper cells.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto confirmed that 10 rockets hit the base at 7:20 a.m. while Iraqi security forces said they had found the platform from which 10 "Grad-type rockets" hit the Ain al-Assad base.
Western security sources said the rockets were Iranian-made Arash models, which are 122mm artillery rockets and heavier than those seen in similar attacks.
"One civilian contractor died of a heart attack during the attack," a high-level security source said, adding that he could not confirm the contractor's nationality.
The death marks the third fatality in rocket attacks in recent weeks, after rockets targeting U.S.-led troops in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil left two people dead.
Days later, more rockets hit a U.S. military contracting company working north of the capital and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but only injuries were reported.
In response, the U.S. carried out an air strike on Feb. 26 against Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary force stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Washington says it struck on the Syrian side of the border, but Kataeb claims one of its fighters who was killed in the bombardment was protecting "Iraqi territory."
Analysts have pointed to both domestic and international reasons for the sudden rise in tensions.
Hardline Iraqi groups have an interest in ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi following his pledges to rein in rogue militias.
They may also carry a message from Tehran to Washington, which under U.S. President Joe Biden is offering to revive the Iran nuclear deal abandoned by his predecessor Donald Trump in 2018.
Iran is demanding the U.S. lift sanctions immediately, while the U.S. wants Iran to move first by returning to previous nuclear commitments.
Tensions between the two rivals peaked in January 2020, following a U.S. drone strike on Baghdad airport that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
In response, Iran launched ballistic missiles on Ain al-Assad and Arbil, wounding dozens.
Over the next 10 months, dozens of rockets and roadside bombs targeted Western security, military and diplomatic sites across Iraq — some of them deadly.
Iraqi and Western officials have blamed hardline pro-Iran factions, some of which have established "front groups" to avoid being directly accused of violence.
Last year's attacks came to a near-complete halt in October following a truce with the hard-liners, but they have resumed at a quickening pace over the past three weeks.
Despite the recent escalation, Pope Francis appears determined to go ahead on Friday with the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.
While he is not set to be in the country's west, he will spend time in Baghdad and Arbil, both hit by rocket attacks last month.
Iraq is simultaneously being gripped by a second wave of the novel coronavirus, which is infecting more than 4,500 people a day in the country of 40 million.
To stem its spread and control crowds during the Pope's visit, Iraq is set to extend its weekend lockdowns to include the entirety of the papal visit from March 5-8.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.