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Rockets fired at Iraqi air base hosting U.S.-led coalition troops

Pope Francis is due to visit Iraq on Friday in the first-ever papal trip to the country.
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Ten rockets were fired at an Iraqi military base hosting U.S.-led coalition troops Wednesday, the latest in a series of rocket attacks in Iraq, with this one just days before the pope is due to visit the country.

The rockets targeted the Ain al-Asad air base, northwest of Baghdad, at 7:20 a.m. local time Wednesday (11:20 p.m. ET Tuesday). The attack was confirmed in a tweet from Col. Wayne Marotto, the military spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the 83-member coalition to defeat the Islamic State militant group. There are approximately 1,400 coalition troops at the sprawling base.

Iraqi security forces are leading the response and investigation, he added.

"A U.S. civilian contractor suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering and sadly passed away shortly after," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement. He later said it remained unclear if the rocket attack had caused the cardiac arrest.

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Major Gen. Tahseen al-Khafaji of the Iraqi security forces told NBC News that there was no damage reported at the base. Security forces were investigating who was behind the attack, he added.

Iranian-backed militia were suspected of being behind the latest attack, which featured medium-range 120mm rockets fired from a truck, a senior U.S. defense official told NBC News. A rocket attack last month on U.S.-led coalition base in northern Iraq involved short-range 107mm rockets.

Pentagon press secretary Kirby told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. reserved the right to respond to the latest rocket attack on U.S. personnel in Iraq but the administration was awaiting the results of the Iraqi government's investigation.

If a military response becomes necessary, said Kirby, ”We’ll do that, again, in a manner and time and place of our choosing.”

“If a response is warranted, I think we have shown clearly that we won’t shy away from that. But we’re just not there yet,” Kirby said.

Asked if the administration was concerned about a possible tit-for-tat cycle of violence, Kirby said, ”Nobody wants to see this situation escalate.”

Kirby said a counter-rocket defense system at the base “engaged” in response to the attack, but it was unclear if the system knocked out any incoming rockets.

Wednesday’s rocket attack follows a U.S. airstrike last week in eastern Syria that killed one fighter in an Iranian-backed militia and wounded two others, according to the Pentagon.

That operation was the first known use of military force by the Biden administration and was carried out in retaliation for a deadly rocket attack on a U.S.-led coalition base in Irbil in Kurdish northern Iraq last month, as well as two other attacks.

Image: Ain al-Asad air base
Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq.Nasser Nasser / AP file

The rocket attack in Irbil on Feb. 15 was the most deadly attack to hit U.S.-led forces in the country for almost a year, and carried echoes of another attack in December 2019 that triggered a dangerous escalation between Iran and the United States.

The latest attack could stoke fears of a repeat of the tit-for-tat escalation, that culminated in the U.S. assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq last January.

Iran retaliated less than a week later by firing missiles at American troops in Iraq, injuring dozens of U.S. service members who suffered traumatic brain injury. The Ain al-Asad air base was one of two bases targeted by Iran.

NBC News has previously reported that Iranian-backed militias were most likely behind the Irbil rocket attack in February, and that the weapons and tactics resembled previous attacks by the Iranian-linked militias. However, it was unclear if Iran had encouraged or ordered the rocket attack.

The uptick in attacks comes at a delicate moment between Iran and the United States, as President Joe Biden seeks to engage in diplomatic talks with Tehran that could see Washington re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018, reimposing sanctions on the country.

But Iran on Sunday rejected an offer from the European Union for direct talks with the U.S. Iranian officials say Washington first needs to provide relief from punishing U.S. sanctions.

Following the attack on the Irbil base last month, Iraq’s Balad air base came under rocket fire days later, where a U.S. defense firm services the country’s fighter jets, and then two rockets landed near the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.

The Pentagon said last week that the U.S. airstrike in eastern Syria sent an "unambiguous message" that Biden would act to protect American and coalition personnel. The U.S. had acted in a deliberate manner that aims to "de-escalate the overall situation" in both eastern Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon added.

Speaking at a briefing Tuesday, just hours before the latest attack, Kirby said there hadn't been any attacks by militia groups on "our people" since the airstrike last week.

"One of the things that we were certainly hoping to achieve as a result of that strike was to deter future such attacks by militia groups on our people, our facilities and our active partners," he said.

The latest rocket attack comes two days before Pope Francis is due to travel to Iraq in what would be the first-ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern country.

Francis had intended to visit Iraq in 2014, as did St. John Paul II in 2000, but both had to call off their trips due to security concerns, according to The Associated Press.

During his trip, from Friday to Monday, Francis is due to visit Baghdad, the holy Shiite city of Najaf and the northern city of Irbil, among other destinations.

He is scheduled to meet with Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, in what is believed to be the first meeting between a pope and an Iraqi grand ayatollah.

Speaking Wednesday at the end of his general audience, Francis asked for prayers that his visit to Iraq may go ahead “in the best way possible.”

“The Iraqi people wait for us, they waited for Saint Pope John Paul II, his visit was not allowed to take place,” he said, according to a Reuters translation. “The people cannot be let down for a second time.”

He made no mention of the deteriorating security situation in the country, according to the news wire.