Two American troops have been killed by rocket fire on an Iraqi base hosting US and British soldiers in an attack that threatens to reignite tensions between the Trump administration and Iran.
The US has yet to apportion blame for the deaths of the American troops, which were the first killed by a rocket attack since the US and Iran came to the brink of war in January after Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, was killed by a US drone strike near Baghdad airport.
The US has previously blamed Iranian-backed Iraqi militias for launching rockets at bases hosting American troops and in the vicinity of the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
A spokesperson for Centcom, the US military command covering the region, told the Financial Times that two US personnel and one member from the international coalition fighting Isis were killed in Wednesday’s attack. A further dozen soldiers had been wounded, including US personnel.
Centcom said in a statement that about 18 Katyusha rockets had struck the base, and the Iraqi Security Forces found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from Camp Taji.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, described the attack on the Taji base as “deplorable”. There are presently 400 UK military personnel deployed in Iraq, and around half of these are stationed at the Taji base.
“Our servicemen and women work tirelessly every day to uphold security and stability in the region — their presence makes us all safer,” he said, adding that UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab had been in discussions about the incident with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo. “We will continue to liaise with our international partners to fully understand the details of this abhorrent attack,” Mr Johnson said.
A US official said President Donald Trump had been informed. The killing of American personnel has been considered a “red line” in Washington as the US has been locked in a stand-off with Iran since Mr Trump in May 2018 withdrew from the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers.
“It is very serious. The president already knows,” said the US official, adding that the US had capabilities throughout the region to support the base or conduct a counter-attack.
The official said the event was under investigation but indicated the scale of the assault meant the US was considering whether Iranian-backed Iraqi militias might have conducted the attack rather than Isis.
Brig Gen Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, told the Financial Times last month that “complementary blows will happen over time” with the aim of pushing US forces out of the region. But he added that Tehran would not stage attacks against the US “unless America does [against Iran]”. He said Iran “saw no reason to order” its proxies to act, but would not “prevent them from acting.”
Photos posted on an official Twitter account of the Iraqi prime minister’s security cell showed a small white truck in undergrowth carrying a shell platform with only three missiles left, found south of the Rashidiya area which is nearby Camp Taji.
The US official refused to discuss the base defences but said the rockets had a range of at least a mile so “the truck didn’t need to pull up right outside the base”.
The US has been seeking to move Patriot missiles into Iraq in order to defend its bases, but negotiations snagged over a demand from Iraqi leaders for the US to pull out its troops in the wake of the strike against Soleimani.
US, British and other western troops returned to Iraq after Isis launched a blitz across northern and western parts of the country in 2014, seizing cities including Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi. Baghdad claimed victory over Isis in December 2017, but the western forces have remained as part of an international coalition against Isis and to help train Iraqi troops.