A barrage of rockets were fired on Wednesday at the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar Province — one of the last remaining Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed.
An Iraqi security statement said that 10 missiles had hit the sprawling base, causing no casualties or major damage. But the Sabareen news outlet, which is affiliated with Iran-backed militias, said three U.S. soldiers had been killed in the attack.
Asked by email to confirm the deaths, a coalition spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto, replied that “the incident is still under investigation.”
Colonel Marotto said initial reports had confirmed that 10 missiles were launched at the base, but he gave no other information.
The assault came just under a week after the United States attacked Iran-backed militia targets at the Syria-Iraq border. Those airstrikes, ordered by the Biden administration, hit a collection of buildings on the Syrian side of a border crossing.
The Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah said one of its fighters had been killed in those airstrikes. It identified him as a member of Popular Mobilization forces that are officially part of Iraqi security forces helping prevent infiltration by the Islamic State.
The assault on the base on Wednesday came just days before a visit by Pope Francis to Iraq beginning on Friday — the first ever papal visit to the war-ravaged country.
Iraqi security forces are on heightened alert, with a Baghdad going into full lockdown on Friday. Security forces have been deployed in large numbers to all of the cities Francis plans to visit on his three-day trip.
The attackers who targeted the base on Wednesday used BM-21 “Grad” missiles, fired from about five miles from the base, officials said.
A local paramilitary leader near the base said he had heard the impact of the rockets and then went to investigate. The leader, Sheikh Qutri Kahlan al-Obeidi, said he had found “a burned vehicle — a Mitsubishi pickup,” rigged with missile launchers, that appeared to have been used in the attack.
No group took responsibility, but the Biden administration will be under pressure to respond if U.S. soldiers were killed, even as the pope’s visit could complicate any immediate military escalation.
The last major assault on the base was a little over a year ago, when dozens of U.S. soldiers and support personnel were injured in a missile attack. That assault was in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.