A civilian contractor with the US-led coalition was killed and eight others, including a US service member, were wounded after at least three rockets hit areas between the civilian Erbil International Airport in northern Iraq and a nearby base.

Security forces gather following a rocket attack in northern Iraq's Erbil region, on February 15, 2021.
Security forces gather following a rocket attack in northern Iraq's Erbil region, on February 15, 2021. (AFP)

Rockets have struck outside an airport near where US forces are based in northern Iraq, sparking fears of new hostilities.

At least three rockets hit areas between the civilian Erbil international airport in the northern Iraq and the nearby base hosting US troops at 9:30 pm local time on Monday. 

One civilian contractor with the coalition was killed and five others wounded, coalition spokesman US Army Colonel Wayne Marotto said. 

One US service member was wounded, he said. He did not reveal the nationality of the dead contractor and said this was under investigation.

At least two civilians were also wounded and the rockets damaged cars and other property, security officials said, without providing more details. 

A statement from Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)'s Interior Ministry said “several people” had been injured based on a preliminary investigation. 

The rockets were launched from an area south of Erbil near the border with Kirkuk province and fell on some residential areas close to the airport.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh condemned the attack, saying in a statement posted online that it marked a “dangerous escalation.”

Local authorities cautioned Erbil residents to stay away from targeted areas and remain in their homes.

US vows 'to hold accountable those responsible'

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington is "outraged" by the attack and added that the US was pledging its support for investigating the incident and holding accountable those who were responsible.

"I have reached out to Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to discuss the incident and to pledge our support for all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible," Blinken said in a statement.

“We express our condolences to the loved ones of the civilian contractor killed in this attack, and to the innocent Iraqi people and their families who are suffering these ruthless acts of violence,” he said in a statement.

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In a later statement, a little-known militant group calling itself the Guardians of Blood Brigade claimed responsibility for the attack. 

It claimed firing 24 rockets that avoided the airport's defenses, specifically naming an automatic machine gun known as a C-RAM that protects American installations in Iraq.

“The American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, even in Kurdistan, where we promise we will carry out other qualitative operations,” the claim said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

Attacks targeting Erbil airport are rare, with Monday's rockets the first to strike the area in five months.

On September 30, when six rockets hit near the airport, KRG authorities said they had been launched from a pickup truck in the nearby town of Bartella in Ninevah province, which falls under federal government control. KRG authorities had blamed Shia militia groups.

Rocket attacks have frequently target the US presence in Baghdad, including the US Embassy, as well as convoys ferrying materials for the US-led coalition.

The frequency of attacks diminished late last year ahead of US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal. 

The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. 

Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. 

The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Daesh terrorist group.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies