A US contractor has died of cardiac failure after rocket fire hit an Iraqi base hosting American-led troops on Wednesday, the Pentagon said, two days before Pope Francis’ visit to the country.
About 10 rockets struck the Ain al-Assad military base in Iraq’s western desert after several weeks of escalating tensions between the US and Iran on Iraqi soil.
“A US civilian contractor suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering and sadly passed away shortly after,” the US defence department said, noting there were no current reports of injuries among US service personnel.
The pope was quick to say he would go ahead with the first-ever papal visit to the country so as not to disappoint the Iraqi people.
“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage,” Francis, 84, said in his Wednesday address. “For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much.”
Ain al-Assad hosts Iraqi forces and US-led troops helping to fight Islamic State. It is also a base for drones used in the surveillance of jihadist sleeper cells.
The Pentagon said the base’s missile defence system had been engaged and that the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, had been briefed and was monitoring the situation closely.
Iraqi security forces were on the scene and investigating, but it was too early to attribute responsibility, it said.
Col Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the US-led forces, said 10 rockets had hit the base at 7.20am. Iraqi security forces said they had found the platform from which the “Grad-type rockets” had been fired.
Western security sources said the weapons were Iranian-made Arash rockets, which are 122mm artillery rockets and heavier than those seen in similar attacks.
Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported last year that the country’s Revolutionary Guards had developed the Arash because it was more precise than other rockets.
The US contractor’s death was the third in rocket strikes in recent weeks, after an attack targeting US-led troops in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil left two people dead.
More rockets hit a US military contracting company working north of the capital and the US embassy in Baghdad days later, but only injuries were reported.
The US carried out a retaliatory airstrike on 26 February against an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary force stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Iraqi and western officials have blamed hardline pro-Iran factions for the spate of rocket attacks, including some said to have established front groups to deflect blame.
Analysts have pointed to both domestic and international reasons for the rise in tensions. Hardline Iraqi groups have an interest in increasing pressure on the country’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, after his pledges to rein in rogue militias.
Observers also say the rockets may be Tehran’s way of putting pressure on Washington, which under Joe Biden is offering to revive the Iran nuclear deal abandoned by his predecessor, Donald Trump, in 2018.
Iran is demanding the US lift sanctions immediately, but Washington wants Iran to move first by returning to previous nuclear commitments.