At least four rockets hit the Iraqi military airbase of Balad north of Baghdad in Salahaddin province on Saturday. One contractor was injured, Iraqi security officials said on Saturday.
The airbase at Balad is where the U.S. defense contractor Sallyport has its headquarters. Currently, there are 46 personnel contracted to support Iraq’s F-16 program. This was the second rocket attack to hit a base hosting U.S. forces or contractors in less than a week.
Reports are sketchy as to the nationality of the wounded contractor, some reports were saying that he was a South African while others were stating that he was an Iraqi. Iraqi officials claimed that the contractor’s injuries were not life-threatening.
The Guardian reported that a little-known Shia militant group, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, has claimed responsibility for the attack. This latest attack comes just days after more than a dozen rockets were fired at coalition forces near Erbil in northern Iraq, which is controlled by Kurdish forces. One non-U.S. contractor was killed in the strike.
The Saraya Awliya al-Dam group also claimed responsibility for that attack. It is believed that this group is an Iranian proxy militia group, possibly even the same as Kata’ib Hezbollah that has attacked U.S. bases numerous times in the past.
Iraqi officials confirmed that the group has ties with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – the Iraqi paramilitaries established in 2014 from mostly Shia militia groups to fight the ISIL (ISIS) group. In January 2020, PMF militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the Iranian Quds Force commander MG Qasem Soleimani were among those killed in a targeted U.S. airstrike outside of Baghdad airport
Jamal Akab, the spokesman for Salahaddin province, told local news media that the missiles landed “near the perimeter of the airbase in an open area.” Due to earlier security concerns at the Balad airbase, the United States had moved some of its contractors out of the base.
Neither Operation Inherent Resolve nor U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has yet commented on this latest attack.
Despite the Iranian proxy militias’ campaign to force the United States out of Iraq, NATO defense ministers have agreed to raise the number of troops of the NATO Mission in Iraq from 500 to 4,000, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a virtual conference.
“ISIS still operates in Iraq and we need to make sure they’re not able to return,” Stoltenberg said at the conclusion of the conference.
NATO’s efforts will now include increased security of Iraqi institutions and areas beyond Baghdad, though their presence “is conditions-based and increases in troop numbers will be incremental.”
The decision to increase the number of NATO troops was reached after the Iraqi government requested reinforcements. It will begin in the coming months, Stoltenberg added.