An American military contractor died of a “cardiac episode” after taking shelter during a rocket attack on Iraq’s al-Asad air base early Wednesday, the Pentagon has confirmed.
The unidentified civilian is the first US citizen who has died in Iraq’s recurrent rocket attacks since President Joe Biden took office, marking the latest test for the new administration as it seeks rapprochement with Iran.
The new administration has blamed similar attacks in recent weeks on Iran-backed militias Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Saraya al-Shuhada, but has not assigned blame for Wednesday’s attack.
No US military personnel were reported injured in the latest barrage, which involved at least 10n rockets fired from multiple locations east of al-Asad, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. Wednesday. US counter-rocket, artillery and mortar air defenses activated, but it was not immediately clear whether they intercepted any rockets.
Iraqi security forces at al-Asad have initiated an investigation, and the United States may respond “if a response is warranted,” Kirby said. “Nobody wants to see the situation escalate," he added.
The Biden administration retaliated last week for other recent attacks in Iraq, including one on Erbil’s International Airport that killed a Filipino national working for the US military. A second person later died from injuries in that attack, and a US service member was injured.
The US responded with a nighttime airstrike late last week on a remote border-crossing office near Syria’s border with Iraq. The facilities were frequently used by militias linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pentagon said. The US strike killed one militiaman associated with Kataib Hezbollah and wounded at least two others.
Some 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq, training the Iraqi military and the Kurdistan Regional Government's peshmerga forces in the aftermath of the multinational war against the Islamic State. Roughly an additional 900 troops remain in adjacent eastern Syria, where they continue to train local forces to secure gains against the collapsed jihadi proto-state.
The US-led coalition reduced its footprint in Iraq last year, pulling out of satellite bases throughout the country and handing over control to the Iraqi military before consolidating at bases in Baghdad’s Green Zone, Erbil and al-Asad.
Though circumspect about too quickly assigning blame for the recent incidents, Biden administration officials have vowed to hold Iran accountable for attacks carried out by its proxy militias in the region. “The memory of the United States is very long, and the reach of the United States is very long, when we choose to use it,” Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of US forces in the Middle East, warned last week.
Intelligence provided by Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities helped the US determine which groups were behind the recent attacks, defense officials have said.
Pentagon officials continue to speak of the recent incidents in Iraq with marked caution as the new administration feels out a path toward renewed diplomacy with Tehran.
Kirby emphasized Wednesday that it is “too early” to say which group carried out the attack, but acknowledged previous barrages were launched by Iraqi Shiite militias that continue to receive support from Iran.
In another departure from the Trump administration’s approach, the Pentagon spokesman avoided placing the onus on Iraq’s security forces for protecting American personnel at local bases.
“Our commanders have the right and responsibility to protect their forces,” he said, adding, “Iraqi security forces are also coming under attack and under threat by these Shia militia groups.”
“This is a problem that has bedeviled us for a while, these militia groups and their ties to Iran,” Kirby said.
“Clearly the relationship between our two countries are not at a high-point. The maximum pressure campaign that was put on by the previous administration only emboldened Iran further,” he told reporters.
A similar rocket attack in 2019 killed an American contractor, leading to a tit-for-tat that culminated in former President Donald Trump ordering the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Iran responded to the assassination with a barrage of ballistic missiles fired at al-Asad and Erbil air bases.
"Iran, through their proxies, is choosing to attack the US and the Iraqi military," said Michael Mulroy, the Pentagon's former top policy official for the Middle East during the Trump administration and an ABC News analyst.
"They are either deliberately trying to destabilize Iraq or are indifferent to whether it is [destabilized]," he told Al-Monitor. "It is likely the US will now have to respond militarily."
The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis II, is due to visit Iraq at the end of this week and plans to meet with Shiite clerical leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The rocket strike has not altered plans for his visit, the pontiff said Wednesday.