What is known about rocket attack that killed a US contractor and wounded several US forces in Iraq
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
On Friday a salvo of rockets struck the K-1military base northwest of Kirkuk. It is the most significant of more than a dozen similar attacks over the past year on bases where US and Coalition forces are located in Iraq.
The following is what we know.
In 2018 rockets target US consulate in Basra.
In February 2019 rockets were discovered pointed at Ayn al-Assad base. In March the US sanctions the Iraqi-based Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia for links to the IRGC. On May 1 rockets were found pointed at Camp Taji. US accuses Iran of being behind a rocket attack in May that lands near the US embassy. On June 18, the Coalition says "Indirect fire landed within the perimeter of Camp Taji, Iraq, June 17. There were no coalition or partner force casualties, and Iraqi Security Forces are investigating the incident."
On August 22, after four airstrikes hit Popular Mobilization Unit munitions facilities, the deputy head of the PMU Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis blames Israel and the US. He "said in a statement the PMF had carried out its own investigation and pointed the finger at the US military, but also accused Israel of infringing Iraqi airspace. 'We announce that the first and last entity responsible for what happened are American forces, and we will hold them responsible for whatever happens from today onwards,' said the statement." Muhandis is the head of Kataib Hezbollah and has been sanctioned by the US for involvement in terrorism.
Since October 2019 ten rocket attacks are carried out on bases or locations where US forces are present.
On November 3 the US reports "a U.S. patrol in northeast Syria witnessed multiple artillery strikes landing within a kilometer of the road they were travelling on. The patrol was not hit. All Coalition military operations are de-conflicted with other forces operating in the region. Coalition forces maintain their inherent right to self-defense to ensure the success of our operations while prioritizing the safety of our troops."
November 8 Coalition reports "At approximately 7:45 p.m. several rockets impacted the Iraqi's Qayyarah base. No Coalition troops were injured. We appreciate the Iraqi Security Forces immediate response and investigation. Coalition forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq to defeat ISIS remnants; we will not be deterred by these attacks and maintain the right to defend ourselves." at least 31 rockets are confirmed fired and reported to be 107m rockets. Lead Inspector General reports for Operation Inherent Resolve for 2019 reference the rocket fire and also express concern that Israel-Iran tensions in Iraq and Syria could impact the US.
On Tuesday, December 3 another group of 122mm rockets are fired at Ayn al-Assad base. The rockets that targeted Ayn al-Assad came from a Bongo-style truck is found showing the types of rockets.
On Thursday, December 5, rockets hit near Balad air base. Iraqi military confirm that two Katyusha rockets landed inside Balad air base. The same day, the US responds to the attacks. “We’re waiting for full evidence, but if past is prologue then there’s a good chance that Iran was behind it,” David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told reporters in a briefing. US sanctions Qais Khazali and his brother of Asaib Ahl al-Haq for role in suppressing protests. AAH is a key component of the Popular Mobilization Units and linked to Iran.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Saturday, December 7, that "there have been reports in the public space about rockets being fired at American forces on bases in Iraq."
On Monday, December 9, rockets are fired and land near a State Department-run "diplomatic security compound" in the airport complex, wounding at least five Iraqi counterterrorism forces.
"That's a bit different than one or two rockets that are harassing fire," said a U.S. military official to NPR. US says that 240 mm rockets were used on December 9.
December 12 US again warns Iran, “no one would like the outcome,” a senior US official warned. US officials say they have intercepted communications by Kataib Hezbollah that link the organization with the attacks. KH is part of the PMU.
December 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, "Iran’s proxies have recently conducted several attacks against bases where Iraqi Security Forces are co-located with U.S. and International Coalition personnel. On December 9, they launched a rocket attack against an Iraqi facility located on the Baghdad International Airport compound. The December 9 attack wounded five Iraqi soldiers, two critically. This was followed by another rocket attack on the airport on December 11. We hope and pray these brave Iraqis will quickly and fully recover from their injuries."
December 17, CENTCOM Media Desk: “We take the recent rocket attacks in Iraq seriously as do our Iraqi Security Forces partners, who are investigating these events. We have made clear that attacks on U.S. and Coalition personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and we retain the right to defend ourselves. U.S. forces operate in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq to support Iraqi forces against ISIS. We are committed to supporting a secure and sovereign Iraq and the people of Iraq.”
December 27 attack
Initial reports from sources indicated that "approximately 10 rockets hit Coalition base in Kirkuk tonight as major Iraqi mission was preparing to begin." Soon after it was revealed the rockets had hit a "munitions storage facility causing multiple blasts." Within an hour and a half of the attack Federal Police had said they found the "suspected origin site and found a truck with 4 rockets still intact."
The US-led Coalition released a statement within hours of the incident. CJTF-OIR Media Operations said "One U.S. civilian contractor was killed and several U.S. service members and Iraqi personnel were wounded in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk hosting Coalition troops, on Dec. 27 at 7:20 p.m. (Iraqi time). Iraqi Security Forces are leading the response and investigation. Further information will be released as it becomes available."
Iraqi Security Forces, likely the Federal Police, find a "launchpad for Katyusha rockets inside an abandoned vehicle near the base." This confirms the earlier report.
Stars and Stripes reports that "Rockets apparently hit a munitions storage facility on the base, said one official who was not authorized to speak officially on the matter and declined to be named. There were at least 10 blasts — some media reports say as many as 30 rockets — but some blasts appeared to have come from the stored munitions, the official said."
December 28 reactions
3:00am (Iraq time): Fox News reports that "About 30 rockets landed at the base used by U.S and Iraqi forces, the official said." US officials point finger at pro-Iranian groups. “We’ve not seen ISIS conduct sophisticated rocket attacks in probably a year,” said an official to Fox News.
US sources seem to agree that the number of thirty to 36 rockets is correct and has been said by someone in the know. Some of the rockets in the salvo didn't fire and were found after.
4:00am (Iraq time) Wall Street Journal says "four U.S. troops were wounded."
11:00am (Iraq time). "United States is looking into the possible involvement of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group.” US officials tell Reuters.
Al-Sumaria News reports "unprecedented" security measures by US forces at Ayn al-Assad base in wake of attack, securing the facility.
Iraq has sent reinforcements to the area to bolster the 9th armored and other forces already located there.
3pm (Iraq time): US Senator Tom Cotton condemns the attack: “If American blood was shed by an Iran-backed group, Tehran ought to face swift and severe consequences.”
Images show a comparison of the rockets used in the attack with those found to have been allegedly exported from Iran to Syria in previous years. Video has surfaced as well. These common 107mm rockets have been shipped by Iran for use by Hezbollah and Syria. The same 2016 production year was found in Syria in 2017 and 2018 in battles around Damascus.
Iraqi media spread rumors on Saturday night that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had flown to Ayn al-Assad base.
US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell tweets "Now would be a good time for our European allies to follow the lead of the German parliament and move to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization."
The attack appears more sophisticated than any attack by ISIS. It fits a pattern of attacks and harassing fire by pro-Iranian militias. In the past the US has pointed fingers at Kataib Hezbollah for similar incidents, although militias like AAH also could be a culprit. It also comes at a time of escalating tensions. Iran, and its allies have attacked oil tankers in the Gulf in May and June, downed a US drone, attacked Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia and carried out escalating attacks in Iraq. The US has warned Iran. Israel has also recently opened the lid on its own campaign in Iraq. Iraq is in the middle of a major political crises. The Prime Minister has resigned and the President has threatened to resign. The US has increasingly pointed a finger at members of the PMU and sanctioned elements of the PMU. For years many of the leader of these groups have opposed the US openly, including Muhandis and Khazali. In the period 2006-2008 it was more common for rockets to be fired at US facilities. They have also held the US responsible for alleged Israeli attacks in July 2019 and also June 2018 in Albukamal.
The attack is of interest because K-1 base was being used as a staging area for operations against ISIS. It is not clear how many Coalition personnel are usually hosted there. It has not been targeted in the past. In October 2017 Iraqi Security Forces and elements of the PMU pushed the Kurdish Peshmerga out of areas around Kirkuk, including K-1. Members of the PMU have said they want the US to leave Iraq and have said they will introduce measures in parliament to get the US to leave. US forces say they are only in Iraq to fight ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government. However US President Donald Trump said in December 2018 and January 2019 that the US could use Iraq to watch Iran.
The 107mm type of rocket produced in 2016 is a common rocket that has been found in Syria and could have been exported to the PMU. 107mm rockets were also used in November in the attack on Qayarrah. ISIS has not been able to outfit a truck like this with this many rockets in the last year of ISIS attacks. It is not clear if ISIS possesses these types of rockets seized from Syrian or Iraqi munitions storage. ISIS has been losing ground since 2016 which makes it less likely.