Ten rockets were fired at an Iraqi military base housing US-led coalition troops on Wednesday, the latest in a series of rocket attacks in Iraq, with it only days before the pope visits the country.
The rockets targeted the Ain Al-Asad air base, northwest of Baghdad, at 7:20 am local time on Wednesday (11:20 pm Tuesday ET). The attack was confirmed in a tweet from Colonel Wayne Marotto, military spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the 83-member coalition to defeat ISIS.
Iraqi security forces are leading the response and investigation, he added.
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Iraqi Security Forces Major General Tahseen al-Khafaji told NBC News that the attack occurred at 7:30 am local time (11:30 pm ET) and that no casualties or damage was reported at the base. Security forces were investigating who was behind the attack, he added.
Wednesday’s rocket attack follows a US airstrike last week in eastern Syria that killed a fighter in an Iranian-backed militia and wounded two others, according to the Pentagon.
That operation was the first known use of military force by the Biden administration and was carried out in retaliation for a deadly rocket attack on a US-led coalition base in Irbil in northern Kurdish Iraq last month. last, as well as two other attacks.
The rocket attack in Irbil on February 15 was the deadliest attack to hit US-led forces in the country for nearly a year, and had echoes of another attack in December 2019 that triggered a dangerous escalation between Iran and U.S.
The latest attack could stoke fears of a repeat of last year’s tit-for-tat escalation, culminating in the US assassination of senior Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq last January.
Iran retaliated less than a week later by firing missiles at US troops in Iraq, wounding dozens of US service members who suffered traumatic brain injury. The Ain al-Asad air base was one of two bases attacked by Iran.
NBC News had previously reported that Iranian-backed militias were likely behind the Irbil rocket attack in February, and that the weapons and tactics resembled previous attacks by Iran-linked militias. However, it was unclear whether Iran had encouraged or ordered the rocket attack.
Following the attack on the Irbil base last month, the Balad air base in Iraq was fired on with rockets days later, where a US defense company services the country’s fighter jets, and then two rockets fell near the compound. from the US embassy in Baghdad.
The latest rocket attack comes two days before Pope Francis travels to Iraq on what would be the first papal visit to the Middle Eastern country.
Francis intended to visit Iraq in 2014, as did St. John Paul II in 2000, but both had to suspend his travels due to security concerns, according to The Associated Press.
During his trip, from Friday to Monday, Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, the Shiite holy city of Najaf and the northern city of Irbil, among other destinations.
He is scheduled to meet with Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, in what is believed to be the first meeting between a pope and an Iraqi grand ayatollah.
Speaking Wednesday at the end of his general audience, Francis asked for prayers that his visit to Iraq will be carried out “in the best possible way.”
“The Iraqi people await us, they waited for Pope John Paul II, his visit was not allowed,” he said, according to a Reuters translation. “You can’t let people down a second time.”
He did not mention the deteriorating security situation in the country, according to the news cable.