US civilian contractor died during rocket attack on air base in Iraq, Pentagon says

The rocket launcher used to fire rockets on Ain Al-Asad base was found in the al-Bayader agricultural area near the town of al-Baghdadi about 180 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. At least 10 rockets have targeted the al-Asad airbase in Iraq on Wednesday which hosts US, Iraqi and Coalition forces, according to US coalition officials.

A US civilian contractor suffered a heart attack and died during a rocket attack on an air base hosting US, Iraqi and coalition forces in Iraq on Wednesday, the Pentagon said.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the contractor was sheltering during the attack on the Al-Asad air base, which US coalition officials said was targeted by at least 10 rockets.

"Iraqi security forces are on scene and investigating. We cannot attribute responsibility at this time, and we do not have a complete picture of the extent of the damage. We stand by as needed to assist our Iraqi partners as they investigate," Kirby said.

Kirby said there were "no current reports" of injuries to US service members and said all are accounted for. A damage assessment is underway.

The attack came less than a week after the US military struck a site in Syria used by two Iranian-backed militia groups in response to rocket attacks on American forces in the region in recent weeks. The February 25 strikes were the US military's first known action under President Joe Biden.

One of the groups, the Iran-backed militia Kata'ib Hezbollah, said in a statement afterward that it had the right to respond to the "barbaric aggression" that killed one of its fighters.

US officials had said they hoped the Syria strikes would end attacks on coalition forces. Wednesday's attack could indicate a failure to achieve that goal and that escalation may be ahead.

"One of the things we were certainly hoping to achieve as a result of that strike was to deter future attacks by militia groups on our people, our facilities and our Iraqi partners, and we certainly hope that it has that effect," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters the day before Al-Asad was targeted.

'Barbaric aggression'

The rocket launcher used in Wednesday's attack was found in the al-Bayader agricultural area near the town of al-Baghdadi, about 180 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, military sources told CNN. Sabereen news, a pro-Shia militia group, published images on its Telegram page claiming to show the launcher that attacked the base. CNN cannot independently verify the images.

The Al-Asad air base was last attacked in January 2020 by Iranian missiles avenging Qasem Soleimani, Iran's most powerful military figure who was killed by a US airstrike ordered by then-President Donald Trump at Baghdad International Airport in 2020.

The US strikes on the Syrian site killed "up to a handful" of militants, a US official told CNN at the time.

Kata'ib Hezbollah released a brief statement the next day, saying the US strikes had killed a fighter "stationed on the Iraqi-Syrian border to protect the land of Iraq and its people from ISIS criminal gangs."

The group called on the Iraqi parliament to expel US forces in the country and prosecute "traitors" who conspire with them, and pledged to respond to the US strikes, saying that despite hopes, the Biden administration was proving to be no different than the Trump administration.

"This barbaric aggression ... indicates without any doubt that the aggressive American policies towards our peoples do not change by changing their administration as the deceived hope, and that its ugly face cannot be hidden by the change of masks," the statement read.

"We affirm the legitimate right of our Iraqi people to respond to this cowardly criminal operation, in revenge for our martyrs," the statement said.

Wednesday's rocket attack comes just two days ahead of a scheduled trip to Iraq by Pope Francis, the first time a Pope has visited the country. The Pope will be staying at the Vatican Embassy throughout his trip, the Vatican said on Tuesday.

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