DOHUK, Iraq — A barrage of rockets was fired on Wednesday at the Ayn Al Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar Province — one of the last remaining Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed.
An Iraqi security statement and one released by the Pentagon said 10 rockets were launched toward the sprawling base.
A senior Defense Department official said a U.S. contractor had died of an apparent heart attack during the rocket barrage. Officials in Washington did not identify the group responsible for the attack.
The Pentagon said in a statement that the missile defense system at Al Asad “engaged in defense of our forces” and added, “We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of the individual who died.”
President Biden was briefed on the attacks, his top spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said. Mr. Biden subsequently discussed the attack in Oval Office comments with reporters, saying, “We’re identifying who’s responsible and will make judgments from that point.”
Even though the contractor who died did so of a heart attack, and no service personnel were killed, the administration may feel the need to respond, Defense Department officials said. “If we determine a response is necessary, we will do so at a time and manner of our choosing,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
The Sabareen news outlet, which is affiliated with Iran-backed militias, said three U.S. soldiers had been killed in the attack — a report completely at odds with the official Defense Department account.
The assault came just under a week after the United States attacked Iran-backed militia targets at the Syria-Iraq border. Those airstrikes, ordered by the Biden administration, hit a collection of buildings on the Syrian side of a border crossing. Mr. Biden had originally approved two targets inside Syria, administration officials said.
The Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah said one of its fighters had been killed in those airstrikes. It identified him as a member of Popular Mobilization Forces that are officially part of Iraqi security forces helping prevent infiltration by the Islamic State.
The second strike Mr. Biden approved was aborted at the last minute after American forces learned that there were women and children at that site, also in Syria, administration officials said. Two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on nine buildings at Abu Kamal, the first site, the officials said.
Mr. Biden chose targets in Syria to avoid political blowback on the Iraqi government, officials said.
The assault on the base on Wednesday came just days before a visit by Pope Francis to Iraq beginning on Friday — the first ever papal visit to the war-ravaged country.
The visit could complicate any immediate military response. Iraqi security forces are on heightened alert, with Baghdad going into full lockdown on Friday. Security forces have been deployed in large numbers to all the cities Francis plans to visit on his three-day trip.
The attackers who targeted the base on Wednesday used BM-21 “Grad” rockets, fired from about five miles from the base, officials said.
A local paramilitary leader near the base said he had heard the impact of the rockets and then gone to investigate. The leader, Sheikh Qutri Kahlan al-Obeidi, said he had found “a burned vehicle — a Mitsubishi pickup,” rigged with rocket launchers, that appeared to have been used in the attack.
The last major assault on the base was a little over a year ago, when dozens of U.S. soldiers and support personnel were injured in a missile attack. That assault was in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Jane Arraf reported from Dohuk, and Helene Cooper from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt and Glenn Thrush from Washington.