Iranian missiles rain down on ‘strategic Israeli center’ in Iraq

ARBIL: Iran claimed responsibility for a missile strike on Sunday on the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, saying it targeted an Israeli “strategic center” and warning of more attacks.

Authorities in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region said 12 ballistic missiles rained down on Arbil in a pre-dawn cross-border attack targeting US interests that slightly wounded two civilians and caused material damage.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed they fired the projectiles, claiming they were targeting sites used by Israel, a top ally of the US.

A “strategic centre for conspiracy and mischiefs of the Zionists was targeted by powerful precision missiles fired by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”, the Guards said in a statement.

Revolutionary Guards had vowed to avenge the death of two officers in an attack in Syria they blamed on Israel

There was no immediate reaction from Israel. Kurdish authorities insisted that the Jewish state has no sites in or anywhere near Arbil, and accused Iran of repeatedly targeting the autonomous region without international censure.

Iran holds considerable influence over the federal government in Baghdad, and Iraq is home to a dwindling number of US troops who lead a coalition against the militant Islamic State group.

Washington has routinely blamed rocket and drone attacks on its interests in Iraq — including sites in Kurdistan — on pro-Iran groups who demand the departure of the remaining troops. But cross-border missile fire is rare.

A correspondent in Arbil said he heard three explosions before dawn.

Taxi driver Ziryan Wazir said he was in his car when the missiles struck. “I saw a lot of dust, then I heard a very loud noise. The windows of my car exploded and I was injured in the face,” he said, his head swathed in white gauze and a bloodied scar running the length of his cheek.

Sunday’s missile assault comes nearly a week after the Guards vowed to avenge the death of two of their officers killed in a rocket attack in Syria they blamed on Israel. Iran backs the government in Syria’s civil war. Israel, the Guards said at the time, “will pay for this crime”.

The Kurdistan Regional Government accused Iran of “targeting (the) Kurdistan Region multiple times” in a statement on Twitter.

The Guards, in their statement, said: “Once again, we warn the criminal Zionist regime that the repetition of any mischief will face harsh, decisive and destructive responses.”

Arbil’s Governor Oumid Khouchnaw told a news conference that along with the taxi driver, a farm custodian was also injured.

Speaking before Iran claimed the attack, he dismissed as “baseless” any notion of Israeli sites in and around Arbil.

“We’ve been hearing for some time that Israeli sites are present,” he said. “There are no Israeli sites in the region.”

He said the missiles fell into vacant lots but that buildings and homes were damaged. The interior ministry in Arbil said a “new building” housing the US consulate in a residential suburb of the city was the target of the attack.

Kurdistan24 television channel, located near the US consulate, posted images on social networks of its damaged offices, with collapsed sections of false ceiling and broken glass.

Washington said there was “no damage or casualties at any US government facility”.

“We condemn this outrageous attack and display of violence,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The US embassy in Baghdad said “Iranian regime elements” who claimed responsibility “must be held accountable for this flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Saudi Arabia expressed “solidarity” with Iraq and support for any measures “to protect its security and stability”.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said he “strongly” condemned the attack in the neighbouring country, and had been in touch with his Iraqi counterpart.

Iraq saw a surge in rocket and armed-drone attacks at the beginning of the year. It coincided with the second anniversary of the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport.

Soleimani, killed alongside his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, headed the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm.

In late January, six rockets were fired at Baghdad International Airport, causing no casualties.