Erbil rocket attacks send Iranian threatening message

David Schenker, the US assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said: “We will not tolerate threats to our citizens who serve abroad”.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s counterterrorism service blamed Wednesday an attack on US troops near Erbil airport on the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that is part of Iraq’s armed forces.

The rocket attack did not cause any human or material losses but reflected escalating tensions in the region amid an ongoing confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

Observers say that Iran is seeking, through its proxy militias, to prove that no part of Iraqi territory is safe for American soldiers or diplomats, including the city of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq that is viewed as more secure than other regions of the country.

In recent weeks, there has been talk of a plan by Washington to move its mission from Baghdad to Erbil after pro-Iranian militias ramped up attacks on the US Embassy in the Iraqi capital and amid warnings of a “great Iranian action” ahead of the presidential elections in the US.

The US warned Thursday that it would not tolerate such attacks by pro-Iranian factions on its interests in the country and threatened revenge, as the Iraqi government feared a possible US withdrawal.

The American threats came from David Schenker, the US assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, who in a press briefing said the United States cannot tolerate threats against its citizens and its army stationed abroad, and will not hesitate to take firm measures to protect its personnel.

When reporters questioned Schenker about the possible closure of the US Embassy in Baghdad, he declined to comment on “personal diplomatic conversations” of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Still, he said, “We will not tolerate threats to our citizens who serve abroad.”

In recent days, individuals close to Iraqi militias affiliated with Iran circulated information on social media about plans to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad and detain whoever they could. This could pose a formidable challenge to the administration of US President Donald Trump and confuse his calculations as he vies for a second term in office.

Diplomatic sources said the US Embassy had already temporarily transferred a number of members of its mission in Baghdad to Erbil, as experts assess the security situation in the Iraqi capital.

The United States has a strong presence in Erbil, with a US Army combat group camped at Harir base near the city’s airport. Washington’s consulate there is also an effective diplomatic centre.

Iran-backed militias, however, have continued to exert pressure, directing their rockets Wednesday towards Erbil in a message that Tehran’s hand can reach any part of Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) interior ministry said that Erbil airport was attacked on Wednesday evening with six rockets fired from a position controlled by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Nineveh governorate.

The ministry added that it was “investigating the details of the attack to obtain more information,” while confirming that it was “fully prepared to face any attack” and calling on the federal government in Baghdad to “take the necessary measures.”

The ministry linked the perpetrators of the attack with a specific faction of the PMF accused of involvement in numerous violations against the Sunni population in Nineveh.

The ministry said that the rockets were launched from an area controlled by the 30th Brigade of the PMF.

Earlier in September, the head of Iraq’s PMF Faleh al-Fayyad relieved Waad Al-Qaddo, leader of the 30th Shabak Brigade that operates in Nineveh, of his duties.

The recent statements by the KRG’s interior ministry marked the first time an official entity has linked a known faction of the PMF to rocket attacks against Iraqi sites hosting US forces.

Iran-backed militias’ involvement in this attack was confirmed by information and pictures of rockets that were launched towards Erbil published by social media accounts and channels supportive of the PMF.

Pictures of the rockets were published on the channels before they were fired at Erbil, calling on the Kurdish population in the region to stay away from the sites hosting US forces.

Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani strongly condemned the rocket attacks, tweeting, “The KRG will not tolerate any attempt to undermine Kurdistan’s stability and our response will be robust. I have spoken to the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, on the importance of holding the perpetrators accountable.”

Former Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, also a prominent politician in the region, said that rocket attacks in Erbil were carried out by the same parties that have been targeting the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Zebari said the missile attacks on Erbil were “another escalation to disrupt security in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan by the same groups who are attacking the US Embassy in Baghdad and its convoys. Action is needed to stop it.”

Iraq’s federal government, under the leadership of Kadhimi, also condemned the rocket attacks on Erbil, describing them as “terrorist operations.”

The Iraqi defence ministry released a statement saying: “On Wednesday evening, a terrorist group targeted Erbil Governorate with several missiles using a modified Kia four-wheel carrying a rocket launcher. It was ordered to arrest the security commander in charge of the area where the rockets were fired from, and an investigation was opened immediately.”

Iraqi observers told The Arab Weekly that Kadhimi’s government, backed by Kurdish and Sunni political forces, is working as hard as it can to contain growing Iranian pressure on US interests in the country.

Tehran believes that directing a heavy blow to US interests in Iraq ahead of the US presidential elections may confuse Trump’s calculations and hurt his prospects of retaining power.

Political sources familiar with the file of foreign and Arab missions that may leave Baghdad due to the Iranian attacks on diplomatic headquarters say that the United States may limit the movement of its employees and soldiers on Iraqi soil in preparation for attacks against Iran-backed militia leaders.

Such a scenario would contribute to Iraq’s descent into chaos, compounding its complex political, economic and health crises.

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