New Shiite militia claims drone attack on US base in northern Iraq

Use of drone in the Kurdish region is 'new development', expert says

Smoke rises over the Erbil, after reports of mortar shells landing near Erbil airport, Iraq February 15, 2021. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
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A previously unknown Shiite militia has claimed responsibility for a drone attack against US-led international coalition troops in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The explosives-laden drone struck a military complex at Erbil International Airport late on Wednesday, the regional interior ministry said. It damaged a warehouse but caused no casualties.

A group calling itself Al Sabiqoon, or The Forerunners, issued a statement claiming the attack a few hours later.

“Our essential condition is that the [US] occupation leave the whole region or we will target their bases in all countries,” it said.

Drone targets US troops in northern Iraq

Drone targets US troops in northern Iraq

The National could not independently verify the authenticity of the statement, but it was posted on social media account linked to established Iran-backed Shiite militias and is similar to statements issued by these groups.

Iran-aligned paramilitary groups have demanded that all foreign troops, including about 2,500 Americans, leave Iraq, calling their presence an "occupation".

In February, a rocket attack on the same base killed a contractor and wounded nine people, including a US service member. US officials blamed Iran-backed militias for that incident.

The anti-ISIS coalition is stationed in Iraq at the request of Baghdad, as is a Nato-led mission that trains Iraqi security forces.

Al Sabiqoon is the latest of more than a dozen Shiite militias to emerge since a US drone attack that killed Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces, in January last year.

The new militias have claimed attacks on US assets throughout the country and are seen as offshoots of the PMF – a network of powerful Iran-allied militias that operate with little government oversight despite being officially under the Iraqi military.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered an investigation into the attack in Erbil.

"The sovereignty and security of Iraq are the responsibility of the government and security forces," he said.

"These type of terrorist acts taking place during the holy month of Ramadan are aimed at destabilising the country."

The US State Department condemned the attack. “The Iraqi people have suffered for far too long from this kind of violence and violation of their sovereignty," spokesman Ned Price said.

The Kurdistan region Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, condemned the “terror attack” and called for the withdrawal of unofficial militant groups stationed near the region.

"Any armed group that is not operating under the authority of official Iraqi security forces must withdraw immediately from the Kurdistan Region's border," Mr Barzani said.

The UAE condemned the attack on Thursday, demanding an end to terrorist attacks in the region.

The country called for all parties to de-escalate tension and practise self-restraint, according to a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.

PMF fighters stationed near the region's borders said they came under attack from Kurdish Peshmerga forces on Thursday morning.

The PMF's 30th Brigade said Peshmerga fired a guided missile and a barrage of bullets from the opposite hillside, injuring one soldier.

The brigade, made up of ethnic Shabak and known as Liwa Al Shabak, is stationed in and around the once Christian-dominated city of Bartella. The US sanctioned its leader, Waad Qado, in 2019 for alleged human rights abuses against Christians.

Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi deputy prime minister and senior Kurdish politician, said Wednesday's attack was a "clear and dangerous escalation".

The use of a drone in Wednesday's attack is a "new development" for the Kurdish region, according to Dean Mikkelsen, a risk consultant who advises companies doing business in Iraq.

Mr Mikkelsen said the drones were "most often used in Yemen against Saudi Arabia's oil and gas facilities via Houthis", the Iran-backed Yemeni rebels.

The attack in Erbil came shortly after a Turkish military base in northern Iraq came under attack, Iraqi security forces said.

Turkish state TV reported that one rocket hit the base in Bashiqa, killing a soldier. Two other rockets hit a nearby village, injuring a child.

In a tweet, the US blamed an “Iran-backed militia” for the attack.

“We condemn Iran's destabilising actions in Iraq that have deadly consequences for Iraqi people and their neighbours,” the US State Department’s office for Near Eastern Affairs said.

Turkey established the base outside of Mosul in 2015 to train Sunni fighters and Kurdish Peshmerga units for the battle to expel ISIS from the city.

Ankara has ignored calls from the Iraqi government to fulfil its promise to withdraw after the defeat of ISIS in late 2017.

Turkey also has troops in Iraq both as part of a Nato contingent and a force that has attacked Kurdish separatist militants in the north.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Bashiqa attack.