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Iran-backed militia behind Irbil rocket attack, says Iraqi Kurdish Security Agency

Irbil International Airport (Jeffrey Beall/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A suspected Iran-backed militia launched at least six rockets near U.S. troops stationed at Irbil airport in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s counterterrorism service blamed the September 30 attack on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iraqi state paramilitary organization dominated by Iran-backed groups.

“Six rockets were launched from the borders of the Sheikh Amir village in Nineveh Province by the Popular Mobilization Forces who were targeting (U.S.-led) coalition forces in Irbil International Airport,” the service said.

U.S. Army Colonel Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State extremist group, said initial reports were that indirect fire did not land on coalition forces in Irbil. “There was no damage or casualties. Incident is under investigation,” he posted on Twitter.

The area where the rockets landed is also near the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I), an armed Iranian opposition group that has been based in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region for years.

On Twitter, the KDP-I said one of the rockets landed near its headquarters. It was unclear if the intended target of the rocket barrage was U.S. forces or the KDP-I. Iran has previously carried out strikes on KDP-I bases and assassinated its exiled leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan and Europe.

The rocket attack comes amid reports that the United States is threatening to close its Baghdad Embassy unless the Iraqi government reins in Iran-backed militias blamed for launching dozens of rocket attacks in recent months on the U.S. mission in the Green Zone and bases housing U.S. troops.

Media reports have suggested Washington could move diplomatic staff to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region that has its own security forces and is considered safe.

Powerful Factions

Since taking up office in May, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has struggled to curb Iran-backed militias, some of which are backed by powerful political factions and intertwined with the country’s security forces.

Earlier on September 30, Kadhimi pledged in a meeting with top diplomats to protect foreign missions and limit the possession of weapons to state forces following a U.S. threat to shut down its embassy in Baghdad.

“Those who carry out attacks on foreign missions are seeking to destabilize Iraq and sabotage its regional and international relations,” Kadhimi told 25 foreign emissaries, including the U.S. ambassador.

Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani condemned the attack near Irbil and called on Kadhimi to ensure that those responsible are held accountable.

Iraq, which has close ties with both the United States and Iran, has long worried about becoming a battlefield in escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.

In January, a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad airport killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.

His death led Iran to retaliate by firing ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops that came close to unleashing a full-blown war between Iran and the United States.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iran-backed Kataib Hizbullah militia and deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the January strike that targeted Soleimani.

Kataib Hizbullah and affiliated Iran-backed militia have been linked to the rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, including one in late December that killed a U.S. defense contractor and wounded several U.S. and Iraqi soldiers at a military base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.