ARBIL, Iraq－The United Nations warned on Tuesday that tensions in Iraq could escalate after a rocket attack killed a foreign contractor for the US military and wounded at least 14 others in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil.
The hail of more than a dozen rockets late on Monday was the first attack in nearly two months targeting Western military or diplomatic installations in Iraq after a series of similar incidents.
“Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability,” said the UN top representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, calling for “restraint” on all sides.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier said he was “outraged” and pledged support in holding those responsible to account.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said “the terrorist act that targeted the Kurdistan region aims to create chaos” and vowed to keep Iraq from becoming a “backyard” where conflicts play out.
The barrage of 107 mm rockets－the same caliber used in recent attacks in Baghdad－was fired on Monday evening from around eight kilometers west of Arbil.
They appeared to be aimed at a military complex inside the Arbil airport that hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition. But they struck all over the city’s northwest, including in residential districts where they wounded five civilians, the Arbil health directorate said.
Coalition spokesman Wayne Marotto said three rockets hit Arbil airport and killed one civilian contractor, who he said was neither an Iraqi nor US national. Another nine people were wounded, including eight civilian contractors and one US soldier, he said.
A shadowy group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam (Guardians of Blood) claimed the attack and in a follow-up statement vowed to keep targeting US forces in Iraq.
Over the past year, around a dozen previously unheard-of formations claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Western diplomatic and security installations.
US and Iraqi officials have said they believe such factions to be “smokescreen” entities for more prominent pro-Iran groups including Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Teheran denies links
Iran on Tuesday condemned the attack and strongly denied “rumors” it was involved.
In a shift from the hawkish campaign against Iran under Donald Trump, President Joe Biden’s administration－which is looking to revive a nuclear deal with Teheran－said it would not rush to judgment or action.
“Certainly, we’ve seen these attacks in the past. We’ve seen Iraqi militia and Iranian-backed militia in many cases be responsible,” Blinken said on Tuesday. “But to date, it’s too early to know who’s responsible for this one.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said such attacks increased with the previous administration’s severing of diplomacy with Iran.
“The sad reality is that these kinds of rocket attacks have been more commonplace in recent years with the implementation of the so-called maximum pressure strategy,” Price told reporters.