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Iraq: Multiple ballistic missiles strike Erbil

Iraqi and US officials say no one known to be hurt in the attack, and suggest the missiles were fired from Iran
Workers clean the damaged office of the Kurdistan 24 TV building in the aftermath of missile attacks, in Erbil, Iraq, 13 March (Reuters)
By Wladimir van Wilgenburg in Erbil, Iraq

Multiple ballistic missiles struck Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, on Saturday night, Iraqi authorities said. The missiles were launched from Iran, Kurdish officials claimed.

Saman Barzanji, health minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government, was quoted by state television saying there were no casualties.

Around a dozen missiles rained down on the city at 1am, reportedly targeting the US consulate's new building. Though neighbouring areas were struck, the attack seems to have only caused material damage.

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"We condemn this terrorist attack launched against several sectors of Erbil, we call on the inhabitants to remain calm," Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said.

Kurdistan 24, a local news outlet, is based close to the new US consulate, and posted images of its damaged office after the blasts, with debris strewn across the newsroom.

Other images circulating on social media appear to show missiles striking the ground and causing explosions.

Cemal Batun, a presenter at Kurdistan 24, was in the channel's cafeteria when rockets hit nearby. CCTV footage shows him, wearing a suit, taking cover when the rockets hit:

“Six missiles were fired and we were in the middle of the broadcasting... This is a very aggressive action against democratic people and society,” Batun told Middle East Eye.

“It's not only against a military party but against all of society, as a message that we can target you all the time. Kurdistan 24 might not be the main target, but in practice it has been one of the targets. Thank god, no one has been injured.”

There has been no official claim of attack, though Kurdish and US officials, speaking off the record, have suggested to media outlets that the missiles came from Iran. The Kurdish interior ministry said in a statement that the missiles were fired from outside Iraq's eastern border.

Influential Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political movement won the October parliamentary elections, tweeted: "Erbil is under fire... as if Kurds were not Iraqis". 

A US State Department spokesperson called it an "outrageous attack".

Erbil is the site of bases that host US forces, who have routinely been targeted by Iran-backed Iraqi factions in Iraq, particularly since Washington's killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad airport in January 2020.

However, such raids appeared to have eased as political forces conducted ongoing negotiations to form a new government.

The vast majority of attacks against US forces in recent years have been launched using rockets or drones. Saturday's attack is the first to use ballistic missiles since Iran staged a retaliatory attack on US bases in Iraq days after Soleimani's killing.

Iran first used ballistic missiles in Iraq against Iranian Kurdish opposition parties in the Koya district in September 2018.

The strikes come at a tense time as Iran and the United States had recently appeared close to concluding an agreement to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, only for talks to be put on hold.

The US seizure of Iranian oil cargo and new Russian demands in the wake of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has been cited as reasons why the talks have faltered since Friday.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, Iran said Israeli airstrikes in Syria had killed two Revolutionary Guard officers and vowed revenge.

Kamaran Palani, an international security expert, and lecturer at Erbil's Salahaddin University, told Middle East Eye that Saturday night's attack could be related to the Iraqi government formation process, and fears in Iran that Tehran's allies would be excluded from the future Iraqi government.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani has allied with Sadr, who wants to form a majority government that excludes Iranian-backed factions who performed poorly in the last elections.

"One of the reasons behind Erbil’s attack could be that the KDP wants to form a government excluding Iran-aligned groups, which deeply diverges with Iran's strategic interests in Iraq," Palani said.

'One of the reasons behind Erbil’s attack could be that the KDP wants to form a government excluding Iran-aligned groups'

- Kamaran Palani, security expert

"In their talks with the Erbil leaders, Iran has directly threatened Erbil. We cannot properly analyse the motives behind last night's attacks without analysing the divergence between Erbil and Teheran in government formation in Baghdad.”

Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, who previously served as advisor to Iraqi president Barham Salih between 2018-2019, told MEE: “Erbil has been warned during formal meetings that they need to give the Shia parties enough space and room to negotiate on their own to reach a consensus.”

“The Iranians have warned Erbil officials that forming a government in Baghdad without the Shia house agreeing to it is a threat to their national security,” he added.

Sabreen News, an Iranian-backed Telegram channel close to Iraqi paramilitaries, said the Erbil attack was not related to the Revolutionary Guard killings in Syria.

“That the response to the killing of our leaders will be in the place and time chosen by the resistance," it posted.

The Iranian government-affiliated Iranian Students News Agency (INSA) also quoted Sabereen News as saying “two advanced Israeli Mossad training centres" were attacked.

Local news agency Rudaw said Erbil's governor denied the presence of Israeli units, calling such allegations "baseless"

Reuters and AFP contributed to this report.

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