On Monday 15 February 2021, the biggest attack in months occurred in the Kurdish region of Iraq. 14 rockets were fired against the US coalition base at Erbil airport, which was established to support Iraq in defeating ISIS. The rockets hit residential areas and damaged civilian properties. As a result, one foreign contractor for the US military was killed and at least 9 civilians were wounded.
The Iraqi President Salih and Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, the Kurdish President Barzani, as well as several Arab states, the EU and the US strongly condemned the attack, with the US accusing pro-Iranian militia forces of being behind it. The Iranian-backed Shia militia group “Saraya Awliya al Dam” claimed responsibility for the attack and did not hold back from threatening the US with possible retaliation.
Iran denied the “suspicious rumours” regarding its involvement and claimed that it has no intent to disrupt Iraq’s stability and security. The Islamic Republic used the usual narrative concerning the Iraqi people being involved as they do not want any US presence in their country. Despite Iran’s claims of innocence, these attacks mirrored those in 2019 and 2020, where it retaliated against the US on Iraqi military bases, launched rockets on Baghdad’s airport and the Green Zone near the US embassy, aiming to force all US troops out of the country and thus remain the sole hegemon on the ground.
Shia cleric and militia leader Al-Sadr himself described the attack as an attempt to undermine people’s trust in the upcoming elections and to prevent Pope Francis’ planned visit to Iraq in March. The Kurds further saw the attack as a possible attempt to harm their relations with the US. It is also likely that the Iranian regime is playing the coercion card to make the US lift its sanctions and return faster to the nuclear deal.
In the end, the attack has merely heightened the already unstable position of Iraq. On the one hand, armed militias have been dominating the country; on the other, ISIS, can now regain its foothold more easily. It is highly concerning that the reckless militias signalled their readiness to attack anywhere at any given time. Erbil used to be the safest place in Iraq, but that too has changed. The new US administration under President Biden now faces its first test on Iraq, which will be crucial in determining its priorities for the country and the Middle East in general.
For now, the White House has planned to increase NATO troop numbers in Iraq and to cooperate with the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities in the investigation of the Erbil perpetrators, who shall be held accountable. The US government also stressed “its right to respond.” At the same time, a response could lead to further escalations, with Iraq caught in the middle of the tensions between Tehran and Washington.
It is time that both states find a common ground to resolve their disputes without continuing to put Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at stake. And it is equally important that Iraq tackles its internal challenges to regain its strength and ensure a secure and stable nation for its people; free from regional intervention.