Bombs Over Erbil

Iran’s alleged proxy attack underscores new alliances — and rivalries — in Iraq

Bombs Over Erbil
A worker cleans shattered glass on February 16, 2021 outside a damaged shop following a rocket attack the previous night in Erbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region/Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images

An attack Monday night in the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has led to a flurry of theories, with accusations lobbed mainly at murky armed groups widely believed to be linked to Iran, but whose interests run parallel to those of other non-state actors.

Over a dozen rockets hit near the Erbil International Airport as well as residential areas of the city after 9 p.m. on Feb. 15, killing one contractor working for the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State, and injuring at least nine others including civilians and one U.S. military member, according to a tweet by the spokesperson for the U.S.-led international coalition against Islamic State, Col. Wayne Marotto.

The attack was presumably targeting the base adjoining the airport, where U.S. and other military forces part of the coalition are stationed. Flights resumed regularly the following day.

The armed faction that claimed the attack, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or “The Guardians of Blood,” is widely seen as a front for other groups operating in the country. It is one of several that came to the public’s attention for the first time last year, and which have claimed other attacks, such as on convoys carrying supplies to the U.S. military.

Several analysts have surmised that the groups are likely to be facades for either Kataib Hezbollah or Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and often have names that hint at or explicitly threaten revenge, presumably for the January 2020 killing of the Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and the Iraqi Shiite militia leader and former deputy head of the country’s government-salaried Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. U.S. media also report that American intelligence also believe that the attack was by an Iranian proxy group.

Both Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have been designated by the United States as Foreign Terrorist Organizations but both also have brigades within the Iraqi government-salaried PMU. The most widely espoused theory is that these groups are behind the attacks but prefer the “plausible deniability” offered by such front groups for political and/or strategic reasons.

A request for comment sent to a Kataib Hezbollah spokesperson was not answered.

Yahya Rasoul, spokesperson for the commander-in-chief of Iraqi forces, said Tuesday that the rockets had been shot from two areas inside the KRI and thus not from an area under the control of the Shiite-dominated PMU, many of which have long-standing links with Iran and groups out of government control. An investigation is being jointly conducted by the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The rockets fired were Iranian-made, 107-millimeter rockets.

The new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden has vowed to resume compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that former President Donald Trump left in 2018, after which the United States imposed sanctions on Iran. Biden has also pledged to pursue more traditional diplomatic avenues with Iran, breaking with the adversarial stance often taken by the former administration. Attacks of this sort, if any connection with Iran is found, may make such diplomatic overtures more complicated.

Though international military officials have, in background conversations, told New Lines that they had seen evidence of Iran-backed armed groups engaging in the sale of weapons to Islamic State cells and granting them free passage at times in exchange for money, almost no one pointed the finger at Islamic State as the likely culprit, even before any claim of responsibility.

Coming as it did, amid heightened tension between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the KRG alongside Turkey, the attack may also hint at a greater confluence of aims between variegated armed groups operating in the country that share an interest in preventing a state monopoly on arms.

The tension sparked by a major Turkish cross-border operation into northern Iraq launched on Feb. 10, dubbed Operation Claw-Eagle 2 against the PKK, and an Oct. 9 agreement to remove both the PKK and Iran-linked armed groups from the disputed area of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, could be seen as a significant contributing factor to the desire of paramilitary forces to assert their presence and ability to counterstrike.

Several Kurdish leaders in the KRG have upped their criticism of the PKK in recent months and called for the armed group’s forcible removal from Iraqi and KRG territory.

The murky militia that took responsibility for Monday’s attack, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, reportedly issued a statement Tuesday claiming that it “only targets the American, Turkish, and Israeli occupation bases” and it aimed to tell “some Kurdish politicians that they are taking the wrong path.” Though many armed groups and others in the country have, for more than a decade, demanded an end to the “American-Israeli occupation,” the addition of “Turkish” is significant.

Initially it was thought that the rockets shot Monday must have originated in one of the disputed areas between the central government and the KRG further south, long a source of contention and susceptible to security gaps that enable greater freedom of movement for non-state actors, including Islamic State cells.

The range of the rockets used in Monday’s attack meant, however, that they must have been fired closer to Erbil. A KRG interior ministry statement issued Tuesday morning said that the rockets had been launched from a Kia truck, found on the road between Erbil and Gwer, west of the capital.

The statement noted that: “The attack on the airport resulted in the killing of one person and injured five others. Three other victims were injured in the city of Erbil, in addition to the material damage to several houses and businesses caused by the attack. Counterterrorism, security, and police units immediately launched an investigation, in coordination with coalition forces, and located the vehicle from which the rockets were fired.”

Many PMU, some of which have historical links with Shiite armed groups close to Iran and operating outside of government control, have a strong presence in the disputed territories. Some of these areas have changed hands between the central government and the KRG in the years of fighting against the Islamic State since 2014: such as oil-rich Kirkuk, which was taken back by force by central government forces, including Shiite-led PMU from the KRG Peshmerga in late 2017, after a referendum, strongly opposed by Baghdad, was held on independence in the Kurdistan region.

Iraq officially declared the defeat of the Islamic State in the country in December 2017. Cells have continued to conduct attacks over the last three years, but do not hold territory.

In January 2021, a large billboard in honor of the “martyrs” Soleimani and al-Muhandis could be seen on entering Kirkuk from the north before arriving at a well-known, enormous peshmerga statue, erected in mid-2017 to thank the Kurdish fighters for their sacrifices, only a few months prior to when the city was retaken by forces answering to Baghdad, including the Shiite-dominated PMU.

An officer from the KRG security forces said in September 2020 that the local Asayish, or Kurdish intelligence, had stopped sharing information with the central government in Baghdad for years about those areas, as well as the Islamic State’s continued presence in them. Kurdish forces, the officer said, were driven out of land that they “had fought, and many of us died, for,” adding that the situation had improved somewhat in terms of intelligence sharing since the government under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn in last year.

The question of whether the new U.S. administration that took office in late January will take any action in response may meanwhile be seen as setting the course for how reactive it will be in threats to, and attacks on, its interests abroad.

In a Feb. 16 tweet, international coalition spokesperson Marotto noted “concussion protocol” in relation to the injury of the U.S. military member, which would seemingly imply the injury was not serious. As of Feb. 17, how the contractor died and what nationality he was, had still not been announced, though Marotto did note the victim was not an American.

A request for further details sent to the spokesperson had not been answered by the time of publication.

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