A rocket barrage was fired at Ain al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq in Anbar province on Wednesday – one of the last Iraqi bases where US forces are stationed.
An Iraqi security statement said 10 missiles hit the sprawling base, causing no casualties or major damage. But media outlet Sabareen, affiliated with Iranian-backed militias, said three US soldiers were killed in the attack.
Asked by e-mail to confirm the deaths, a spokesperson for the coalition, Colonel Wayne Marotto, replied that “the incident is still under investigation”.
Colonel Marotto said initial reports confirmed 10 missiles were launched at the base, but gave no further information.
The assault came just under a week after the United States attacked Iran-backed militia targets on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The airstrikes, ordered by the Biden administration, hit a group of buildings on the Syrian side of a border post.
Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed in the airstrikes. He identified him as a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces which are officially part of the Iraqi security forces helping to prevent infiltration by the Islamic State.
The assault on the base on Wednesday came just days before Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq from Friday – the first ever papal visit to the war-torn country.
Iraqi security forces are on heightened alert, with one Baghdad completely locked down on Friday. Security forces have been deployed in large numbers to all the towns Francis plans to visit on his three-day trip.
Attackers who targeted the base on Wednesday used BM-21 “Grad” missiles, fired about five miles from the base, officials said.
A local paramilitary leader near the base said he heard the impact of the rockets and then went to investigate. The leader, Sheikh Qutri Kahlan al-Obeidi, said he found “a burnt-out vehicle – a Mitsubishi pickup”, equipped with missile launchers, which appeared to have been used in the attack.
No group has taken responsibility, but the Biden administration will be under pressure to respond if US soldiers are killed, although the Pope’s visit could complicate any immediate military escalation.
The last major assault on the base was just over a year ago, when dozens of US soldiers and support personnel were injured in a missile attack. The assault was in retaliation for the U.S. drone assassination of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander Major General Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.