US Troops in Erbil Targeted With Armed Drone for 1st Time

April 16, 2021James R. Webb
Erbil Done Iran

A still from CC TV outside of Erbil International Airport captures the scene of the April 14, 2021 attack on US forces in the country. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

US forces based near Erbil airport in northern Iraq came under attack Wednesday from an armed drone. While no specific group has claimed responsibility, the attack marked the first time that Americans have faced the tactic at the base.

According to Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for troops stationed at the base, the drone carried TNT and landed on the roof of a storage hangar, where it detonated.

The interior ministry of the autonomous Kurdish regional government said in a statement that no one was hurt in the blast, but the building was damaged. A separate rocket attack about 60 miles away killed a Turkish soldier near Bashiqa, Iraq.

Peshmerge Iran Drone Iraq
Peshmerga soldiers provide security during training near Irbil, Iraq, Oct. 11, 2015. The coalition runs five training sites in Iraq for Iraqi and Peshmerga forces. US Army photo by Spc. Tristan Bolden/released.

That attack on the Erbil air base is the latest in a string of attacks on American installations throughout Iraq in recent months. Since President Joe Biden took office in January, there have been at least 20 rocket or bomb attacks targeting Americans in the country. A Feb. 15 attack at the same American base in Irbil killed a US contractor and was the pretext for the Biden administration’s Feb. 25 strike on Iranian-backed militia bases in Syria.

“It seems the same militia who targeted the airport two months ago are at it again,” Iraq’s longtime former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent Kurdish political figure, posted on Twitter.

The use of drones appears to be a growing trend among Iran-backed Shiite militant groups operating in the region, though Wednesday’s attack was the first to target Americans.

On Jan. 23 Saudi Arabian air defenses intercepted an armed drone heading for the capital city of Riyadh. While initial speculation suggested that this attack was linked to the Houthi, a group located in Yemen, the Iraqi “Righteous Promise Brigades” ultimately claimed responsibility. That group had only announced its formation two days before the attack, suggesting significant logistical backing from an outside source. 

“Iran likely provided coordination and technology for the Riyadh attack,” the Critical Threats Project said in a report on the incident. An analysis by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, or TRAC, echoed that assessment, saying the Righteous Promise Brigades is probably “at least tacitly supported by Iran.”

iran iraq drone erbil
Missiles and drone aircraft at an exhibition in Yemen Sept. 17, 2019. Photo released by the Houthi Media Office/public domain.

Similar incidents date to at least 2019. In September of that year an Iranian-backed Houthi group claimed responsibility for a drone attack on the Aramco oil fields near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The 17-minute strike by 18 drones and three low-flying missiles shut down more than 5% of global oil supply until repairs were completed to the facility Oct. 3.

A 2019 declassified intelligence assessment from Washington included pictures of drone components including an engine as “closely resembling” or “nearly identical” to those observed on other Iranian-made drones.

While Americans are in Iraq to finish the fight against the Islamic State group, Iranian-backed militia groups have been ratcheting up their rhetoric in recent months, vowing to ramp up attacks to force out the “occupying” US forces. These calls come more than a year after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel American troops, and nearly a decade after then-President Barack Obama “withdrew” Americans from the country.

Iran Iraq Drones
Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces in action outside Tal Afar, Iraq, in March 2017. Many militias involved in the PMFs are backed by Iran. Photo by Mohammad Mehdi Dara, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

On April 1, a convoy of armed Shiite militants made their way through central Baghdad. Wearing masks and carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, the militants denounced America’s presence in Iraq and threatened to cut off the Iraqi prime minister’s ear.

Muqtada al-Sadr, former leader of the “Badr Brigade” and now a leading Shia cleric and head of Iraq’s largest political bloc, “Saeroun,” called the resolution a “weak response in comparison to American violations of Iraqi sovereignty.” He further called on parliament to terminate Iraq’s security agreement with the US and close all American bases and the “evil American embassy” immediately.

On April 7, representatives from Baghdad and Washington engaged in a fourth round of discussions regarding US forces in Iraq. While the ultimate result from Washington was a commitment to withdraw remaining combat troops from Iraq, a timeline for a withdrawal of noncombat advisers and trainers was not established. 

A joint statement released by the governments of US and Iraq confirmed that “the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq.”

Read Next: The Drone War Over Ukraine’s Trenches Foretells the Future of Air Combat

James R. Webb
James R. Webb

James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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