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Iraq drone attack targets US forces at Erbil airport

The unprecedented attack comes as a rocket hit a Turkish military base in northern Iraq, and a car bomb killed four people in Baghdad
A picture taken on 24 December 2019, shows the entrance of Erbil International Airport, in the capital of the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region Erbil (AFP)

An attack Wednesday on an airport in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, was carried out by an unmanned aerial drone, the Kurdish interior ministry said, in an unprecedented escalation of the arms used to target US soldiers based there.

"A drone charged with TNT targeted a coalition base at Erbil's airport," the ministry said, adding that no one was hurt in the blast but a building was damaged. 

Meanwhile, a Turkish soldier was killed by rocket fire at around the same time at a military base 50 kilometres east in Bashiqa, Ankara said, but there was no immediate confirmation of any link between the two attacks.

"We strongly condemn tonight's terror attacks in Erbil and Bashiqa," the Kurdish region's premier Masrour Barzani said in a tweet after speaking with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

"We agreed to stay in close contact as the investigation continues."

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

Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias oppose both the presence of the United States and Turkey and demand a full withdrawal of all foreign troops.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the airport drone attack, which caused an explosion heard across Erbil.

But a shadowy pro-Iranian group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam (Guardians of Blood), which claimed responsibility for a similar attack at the airport in February, hailed the blast in pro-Tehran channels on the messaging app Telegram. 

A security cordon blocked all access to the airport on Thursday, witnesses reported, according to AFP. The Erbil governor said air links were not interrupted.

In a third separate attack on Thursday, four people were killed and another 17 wounded when a car bomb exploded at a busy second-hand equipment market in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a mainly-Shia district, Iraqi police and medical sources said.

Suicide attacks in the Iraqi capital have become very rare since the government announced the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq in 2017 and improved overall security in the city.

In January, IS claimed a suicide attack in a crowded market in Baghdad that killed at least 32 people, in what was Iraq’s first big bombing in three years.

String of attacks

Some 20 bomb or rocket attacks have targeted bases housing American soldiers or diplomats in Iraq since US President Joe Biden took office at the end of January. 

Dozens more took place over the preceding 18 months, with Washington consistently blaming pro-Iran factions.

Washington and Tehran are both allies of Baghdad, but remain sharply at odds over Iran's nuclear programme.

On 15 February, more than a dozen rockets targeted a military complex inside Erbil airport, killing an Iraqi civilian and a foreign contractor working with US-led troops.

The complex hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition helping Iraq fight IS.

The United States has sometimes responded with air strikes against Iran-aligned militias including on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

An air strike ordered by former president Donald Trump that killed Iran's top commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 sent the region to the brink of a full-scale conflict. 

'Dangerous escalation' 

Iraq's former foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent Kurdish political figure, condemned the Erbil attack on Twitter.

"It seems the same militia who targeted the airport two months ago are at it again," he said, hinting at pro-Iranian factions.

"This is a clear & dangerous escalation," he added.

Pro-Iran groups have been ratcheting up their rhetoric, vowing to ramp up attacks to force out the "occupying" US forces, over a year after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the American troops.

The United States last week committed to move out all remaining combat forces from Iraq, although the two countries did not set a timeline for what would be the second withdrawal since the 2003 invasion.

The announcement came as the Biden administration resumed a "strategic dialogue" with the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is seen as too close to Washington by Iraq's powerful pro-Iranian factions.

The region of Kurdistan has been autonomous since 1991 and has a population of five million.