US expresses outrage over Erbil rocket attack as investigation gets underway
Posted February 16, 2021 2:43 p.m. EST
CNN — The White House said it was "outraged" by a rocket attack on coalition forces in Iraq that has been claimed by an Iranian-backed militia, but said is still working to determine who was responsible.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden "reserves the right to respond in the time and manner of our choosing" to the attack, which occurred near the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing one and injuring several others.
Iraqi security sources in Baghdad told CNN they are investigating the militia's claim. Iran has denied involvement.
"As always, the President of the United States and the administration reserves the right to respond in the time and the manner of our choosing, but we'll wait for the attribution to be concluded first before we take any additional steps," Psaki told reporters Tuesday at the White House.
One civilian contractor died and a US service member and several American contractors were injured when the rocket fire landed on coalition forces. The attack could complicate the Biden administration's stated plans to return to the Iran nuclear deal as long as Tehran resumes compliance with the pact.
An Iranian-backed Shia militant group called "The Guardians of the Blood Brigade" claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement but did not provide evidence of its role in the incident.
"The American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, and even in Kurdistan, where we promise we will carry out other qualitative operations," the group's statement said. The group has claimed responsibility for other small attacks targeting US troops in areas near Baghdad and northern Iraq in August.
Psaki and other administration officials declined to say whether the US believes Iran was involved, stressing US support for the investigation that Iraq has begun. "We're still working on attribution with our Iraqi partners," Psaki said.
Asked about possible Iranian responsibility, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US is "not going to get ahead of the investigation, which is underway. We take it incredibly seriously. We are supporting our Iraqi partners in their efforts to investigate these attacks, whether they were conducted by Iran or" Iran-backed forces.
On Tuesday, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denied any ties to the Monday attacks in Erbil. "While these rumors are strongly rejected, the dubious attempt to attribute it to Iran is also strongly condemned," Khatibzadeh said, according to Iran's state official news agency Mehr.
US and Iraqi personnel have now been to the launch site of the rocket attack, a US official said. Troops found a mobile launcher consisting of a multiple rocket launcher on the back of truck, as well as a fixed launcher. They also found six unlaunched rockets, the official said.
By calculating the trajectory of the incoming rockets, the US was able to locate the launch site and have aircraft overhead "fairly quickly," the official said. The US immediately pointed Iraqi forces to the location and then sent in its own troops.
The US military is looking at the launchers and rockets to see what it can learn about the group behind the attack, said the official, who added that the US will follow the standard process of evaluating the evidence and then deciding how to proceed.
Psaki offered condolences for the slain contractor and noted calls between the US secretaries of state and defense and Iraqi and Kurdish officials. She said the administration would make diplomacy a "priority" as it formulates a response.
Tuesday's expressions of outrage echoed Secretary of State Antony Blinken's statement about the attack Monday evening. Blinken used the statement to extend condolences to "the innocent Iraqi people and their families who are suffering these ruthless acts of violence."
He spoke Monday to Iraqi Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Tuesday morning spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, according to the State Department.