At least 10 rockets strike Ain al Asad air base in western Anbar province, officials say, two days before historic visit by Pope Francis to the country.

The rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7:20 a.m., spokesman Coloneln Wayne Marotto said. It was not immediately known if there were any casualties.
The rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7:20 a.m., spokesman Coloneln Wayne Marotto said. It was not immediately known if there were any casualties. (TRTWorld)

At least 10 rockets have targeted a military base in western Anbar province that hosts Iraqi and US-led coalition troops.

The rockets struck Ain al Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7:20 am [local time], coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto said on Wednesday. 

Iraqi and Western security sources say a civilian contractor with the US-led coalition in Iraq died of a heart attack during the attack. 

The sources could not confirm the contractor's nationality and the US-led coalition did not respond to requests for comment.

It was not immediately known if there were any more casualties.

READ MORE: Will Biden’s Iraq policy signal the end of US unilateralism?

US strike on Iran-aligned militia

It was the first attack since the US struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week.

The US strike was in response to a spate of rocket attacks that targeted the American presence, including one that killed a coalition contractor from the Philippines outside the airport in the city of Irbil in northern Iraq.

After that attack, the Pentagon said the strike was a "proportionate military response" taken after consulting coalition partners.

Marotto said the Iraqi security forces were leading an investigation into Wednesday's attack.

Wednesday's attack comes two days before Pope Francis' is scheduled to visit Iraq in a much anticipated trip that will include Baghdad, southern Iraq and in the northern city of Erbil. 

READ MORE: Iran condemns US strikes in Syria, denies attacks in Iraq

 Boiling tensions 

The US responded on February 26 with a US air strike on Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary force stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Washington says it struck on the Syrian side of the border but Kataeb said one of its fighters who was killed in the bombardment was protecting "Iraqi territory".

Analysts have pointed to both domestic and international reasons for the sudden rise in tensions.

Hardline Iraqi groups have an interest in ramping up the pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhemi following his pledges to rein in rogue militias.

US-Iran nuclear deal

They may also carry a message from Tehran to Washington, which under US President Joe Biden is offering to revive the Iran nuclear deal which his predecessor Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

Iran is demanding the US lift sanctions immediately, while the US wants Iran to move first by returning to previous nuclear commitments.

Despite the escalation in recent weeks, Pope Francis appears determined to go ahead on Friday with the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.

While he is not set to be in the country's west, he will spend time in Baghdad and Arbil, both hit by rocket attacks last month.

Iraq is simultaneously gripped by a second wave of the coronavirus, which is seeing more than 4,500 new cases a day in the country of 40 million.

To stem the spread and control the crowds during the Pope's visit, Iraq is set to extend its weekend lockdowns to include the entirety of the papal visit from March 5-8.

READ MORE: Deadly rocket attack hits US base in northern Iraq

Source: TRTWorld and agencies