Covert Drone War Between Israel and Iran Goes Public With Missile Launch on Iraq
As many as 12 missiles were fired Sunday toward the U.S. consulate in Iraq’s northern city of Erbil, Iraqi security officials said.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards released later on Sunday a statement taking responsibility for missile attacks against Israeli "strategic centers" in Erbil, state media reported.
"Any repetition of attacks by Israel will be met with a harsh, decisive and destructive response," the statement added. Israel killed two Iranian members of the Revolutionary Guards earlier this week in Syria.
Hezbollah-affiliated Al Mayadeen news outlet, however, cited Iranian sources as saying that the attack was not related to Israel's alleged killing of two Iranian Revolutionary Guard members in Syria last week, but rather to other Israeli operations against Iranian targets.
The report said that the ballistic missiles were fired at Mossad headquarters in Erbil, alleging that four Israeli officers were killed and seven wounded in the attack. It also mentioned that Iranian intelligence agents took down an Israeli spy ring operating in the country in an attempt to recruit local agents.
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Analysts say that Sunday's attack was more of a retaliation against last week's Israeli air strikes in Syria rather than an attack on the United States.
"Iran had carried out attacks against American targets and did not shy away from publicizing this," said Hamidreza Azizi, Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"I see this more as a warning sign to Israel and a show of force in the negotiations."
Officials in Iraq and the U.S. gave different accounts of damage. A second U.S. official said there was no damage and no casualties at any U.S. government facility, but Iraqi officials said several missiles had hit the U.S. consulate. The consulate building is new and currently unoccupied.
The U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because information was still coming in, said it was still not certain exactly how many missiles were fired and exactly where they landed.
The Iraqi security officials said there were no immediate report of casualties from the attack, which occurred shortly after midnight and caused material damage in the area. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
One of the Iraqi officials said the ballistic missiles were fired from Iran, without elaborating. The U.S. officials could not confirm the type of missile.
The second U.S. official said the incident was being investigated by the government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government. The U.S. condemned what it called an “outrageous attack against Iraqi sovereignty and display of violence,” the official said in a statement.
The attack came several days after an Israeli strike near Damascus, Syria, killed two members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Iran's foreign ministry strongly condemned the attack Wednesday and vowed revenge.
On Sunday, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Iraqi media acknowledging the attacks in Erbil, without saying where they originated.
Satellite broadcast channel Kurdistan24, which is located near the U.S. consulate, went on air from their studio shortly after the attack, showing shattered glass and debris on their studio floor.
A security statement said Erbil was targeted “with a number of missiles” early Sunday, adding that security forces were investigating the incident and would release more details later.
The attack comes as negotiations in Vienna over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal hit a “pause” over Russian demands about sanctions targeting Moscow over its war on Ukraine.
The top U.S. commander for the Middle East has repeatedly warned about the increasing threats of attacks from Iran and Iranian-back militias on troops and allies in Iraq and Syria.
In an interview with The Associated Press In December, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie said that while U.S. forces in Iraq have shifted to a non-combat role, Iran and its proxies still want all American troops to leave the country. As a result, he said, that may trigger more attacks.’
The Biden administration decided last July to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by December 31, and U.S. forces gradually moved to an advisory role last year. The troops will still provide air support and other military aid for Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State.
The U.S. presence in Iraq has long been a flash point for Tehran, but tensions spiked after a January 2020 U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed a top Iranian general. In retaliation, Iran launched a barrage of missiles at al-Asad airbase, where U.S. troops were stationed. More than 100 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries in the blasts.
More recently, Iranian proxies are believed responsible for an assassination attempt late last year on Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
And officials have said they believe Iran was behind the October drone attack at the military outpost in southern Syria where American troops are based. No U.S. personnel were killed or injured in the attack.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi tweeted: “The aggression which targeted the dear city of Erbil and spread fear amongst its inhabitants is an attack on the security of our people.”
Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdish-controlled region, condemned the attack. In a Facebook post, he said Erbil “will not bow to the cowards who carried out the terrorist attack.”
Reuters contributed to this report.