U.S. and Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity with Politico on Thursday, said they believe an Iraqi militia group backed by Iran was behind Wednesday morning’s rocket attack that targeted U.S. forces at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.
While Iraqi security forces are still investigating the rocket launch site, two defense officials familiar with the early intelligence said they believe the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah militia was responsible. The defense officials said the circumstances of the latest strike are similar to past rocket attacks linked to Kataeb Hezbollah.
The Wednesday attack involved ten rockets fired at U.S. troops at the Iraqi-controlled airbase, located in Iraq’s Anbar province. One U.S. contractor died after suffering from a cardiac episode while sheltering from the attack. No injuries have been reported as a direct result of rocket impacts.
While unnamed officials believe Kataeb Hezbollah is behind the attack, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “We cannot attribute responsibility at this time, and we do not have a complete picture of the extent of the damage.”
In later comments to reporters on Wednesday, Kirby said, “Let’s let our Iraqi partners investigate. If a response is warranted, I think we have shown clearly that we won’t shy away from that.”
Kirby’s comments come days after President Joe Biden ordered strikes targeting Iran-backed militia groups in Syria, including Kataeb Hezbollah. Biden ordered last week’s airstrike days after a similar series of rocket attacks targeting U.S. and coalition forces in Erbil, Iraq. That attack killed one civilian contractor and injured six – including an American service member.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he recommended the strike to Biden after the Pentagon waited to establish a link between Iran-backed militias and the previous rocket attack. Austin said, “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”
U.S. forces have responded to similar past attacks by Kataeb Hezbollah fighters. In response to a December 2019 rocket attack, the U.S. launched airstrikes that targeted Kataeb Hezbollah locations. The Kataeb Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militias responded by attempting to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Days later, then-President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) leader commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed alongside Soleimani.
The strike on Soleimani pushed the U.S. and Iran closer to open conflict and on Jan. 8, Iran responded to his death by launching a series of missiles at U.S. positions in Iraq, including Al Asad airbase. No U.S. personnel were killed in the Jan. 8 missile attack, but more than 100 U.S. troops did reportedly suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).