Iraqi Kurdistan saw simultaneous air attacks Feb. 15—from Turkish warplanes on a mountain supposedly harboring PKK guerillas, and (in a far more audacious move) from an Iran-backed militia on the regional capital Erbil. In the latter attack, a barrage of rockets targetted a US airbase outside Erbil’s airport. A foreign “civilian contractor” was killed, and nine others, including US personnel, were wounded. It is being called the worst attack in a year on the US-led military coalition in Iraq. A nearby apartment complex and market were also damaged, and some reports indicate the Chinese consulate was hit by either a stray rocket or debris.
A little-known group calling itself Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of the Blood) claimed responsibility for the Erbil attack, saying it was in revenge for the deaths of “the martyred leaders”—an apparent reference to the paramilitary commanders killed in the US drone attack on the Baghdad airport in January 2020. The group also claimed responsibility last August for two bombings targeting US contractor convoys carrying military equipment. It appears to be among a profusion of Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitary groups now operating in Iraq, most prominently including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. (Al Jazeera, NYT, Rudaw, Kurdistan24)
Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement that “categorically rejected allegations ascribing the…rocket attack on the city of Erbil in the Iraqi Kurdistan region to Iran.” (Tehran Times)
The Turkish air-strikes targeted a purported PKK stronghold on Mount Gare in northern Akre district. The strikes supposedly came after PKK militants killed 13 Turkish “hostages”—captive soldiers and police troops—being held in a cave complex on the mountain. The PKK, however, said the captives had been killed in earlier Turkish air-strikes on the position, days before. It is unclear if there were any casualties in the new air-strikes. The mayor of the local village of Dînartê said that hamlets in the area are still coming under bombadrment by Turkish planes.
The affair sparked diplomatic tensions between Ankara and the new Biden administration in Washington, which initially refused to accept Turkey’s version of events. Later that day, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu said Washington believed the PKK was responsible for the deaths. (Al Jazeera, ANF, Al Monitor, Kurdistan24)
Turkey has been for years targeting presumed PKK positions in northern Iraq.