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Seven rockets hit US positions in Iraq

Pro-Iranian militias reportedly launched the offensive against the Balad military air base, which houses US troops and personnel
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PHOTO//AMEER AL MOHAMMED  -   File photo, a US soldier stands guard at the K1 air base near Kirkuk, northern Iraq

At least seven rockets hit Iraq's Balad air base, located about 80 km north of Baghdad, on Monday. The base is home to the US defence company Sallyport Global and its 46 employees, who provide support services for Iraq's F-16 programme. However, Iraqi operational sources indicate that the attack caused no fatalities.

Up to five rockets reportedly landed outside the base and caused damage to civilian property in a village near the camp. The remaining two rockets reportedly hit inside the compound, according to the Iraqi army. "Two rockets fell outside Balad airbase without significant losses, and were launched from the Saadiyat al-Shat area in Diyala governorate," the Iraqi Security Forces said.

No group has claimed responsibility, but military sources suggest that the attack was the work of Iranian-backed armed militias. On 20 February, the same base was the target of a similar offensive. At the time, a little-recognised Shiite militia called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, which in Arabic means Blood Guards Brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack.

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AFP/ ALI AL-SAADI - A US soldier stands at the Taji base compound, which houses Iraqi and US troops and is located thirty kilometres north of the capital Baghdad, on December 29, 2014

The Balad base is usually occupied by Iraqi soldiers, but also houses contractors and employees of US companies such as Sallyport Global or Lockheed Martin Corp. They also frequently host coalition soldiers or US troops. However, during the attacks, they were not present in the camp.

The contractors of the US companies had begun preparations to leave the Balad air base in 2019 because of "potential security threats", according to Reuters. Both companies eventually decided to remain at the base after receiving security assurances from US military personnel.

US troops said they would intensify security at Balad and in the vicinity of the base. They also included aerial surveillance to ensure the safety of their contractors. Iraqi commanders had also assured US military officials that they would ensure the safety of foreign personnel in the event of future attacks.

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AP/KHALID MOHAMMED - U.S. Army soldiers stand outside their armoured vehicle at a joint base with the Iraqi army, south of Mosul, Iraq

The Iraqi army said on 3 March that 10 rockets had fallen on the al-Assad air base in the western province of Anbar. Half were intercepted by a US air defence system, US and Iraqi officials said. However, a US civilian contractor "suffered cardiac arrest while sheltering and sadly died shortly thereafter," Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said.

Another rocket fire on 15 February struck the US base in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. The attack killed one civilian contractor and wounded at least eight others, including a US service member. Only a week after the attack, a new rocket offensive hit Baghdad's Green Zone, which houses the US Embassy and other diplomatic missions. No one was injured.

In response to "recent attacks on US and coalition personnel in Iraq and ongoing threats", according to John F. Kirby's statement, the US military bombed facilities used by the pro-Iranian militias of Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada in the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim. The Biden administration's first strike in the Middle East sought to damage the Tehran-backed militias and undermine their ability to carry out future attacks, according to Pentagon sources. 

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PHOTO/AFP - U.S. President Joe Biden

Armed militias aligned with the Tehran regime are demanding that all foreign troops leave the country, calling their presence an "occupation". US troops in Iraq number 2,500, and lead the NATO coalition on the ground to fight Daesh. Over the past year, however, their presence has been gradually reduced.

For his part, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced in early March that he would increase his mission in Iraq from 500 to 4,000 troops to combat the remnants of Daesh. The NATO training mission was launched in 2018 to help the conflict-torn country develop new military academies and schools for its armed forces.