Rockets hit Iraqi base hosting US troops days before the pope’s visit

At least 10 rockets fired at a military base in western Iraq, which is hosting US-led coalition troops on Wednesday, said the coalition and the Iraqi military. The attack came two days before Pope Francis paid a historic visit to Iraq, which the pope said would continue as planned.

The rockets hit the Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province at 07.20 local time, spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto said.

Later, the Iraqi military released a statement that the attack did not cause significant losses and that the security forces had found the firing plate used for the missiles.

It was the first attack since the United States struck Iran-targeted militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week that killed a militia, sparking fears of a repeat of a series of tit-for-tat attacks that escalated last year, which culminated in the US-led drone strike that killed Iran’s top security chief, Qassem Soleimani, outside Baghdad airport.

Wednesday’s attack targeted the same base where Iran struck with a barrage of missiles in January last year in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani. Dozens of US service members were injured and suffered concussions during the strike.

The pope reiterates that he will go to Iraq

The attack came two days before Pope Francis was to visit Iraq in a long-awaited trip that will include Baghdad, southern Iraq and the northern city of Erbil.

In his weekly prayer speech on Wednesday, the pope asked for prayers for the trip, the first ever by a Roman Catholic pope to Iraq.

“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. I have long wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much,” said the 84-year-old pope.

The pope added that he would go to Iraq, where his predecessor John Paul II was not allowed to travel in 2000, because “the people cannot be let down for the second time”.

“The Iraqi people are waiting for us, they were waiting for Saint John Paul II, who was banned from going. You can not disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful,” he said.

He did not mention Wednesday’s attack on Ain al-Asad air base.

Domestic, regional tensions

Wednesday’s attack came amid growing domestic and regional tensions.

Tough Iraqi groups have an interest in increasing pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi following his commitments to force back rogue militias.

They could also send a message from Tehran to Washington, which under US President Joe Biden offers to revive Iran’s nuclear deal abandoned by its predecessor Donald Trump in 2018.

Iran demands that the United States lift the sanctions immediately, while the United States wants Iran to move first by returning to previous nuclear commitments.

Denmark, which also has troops at the base, condemned the attack and said that the coalition forces at Ain al-Asad are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government and are helping to provide stability and security in the country.

“Contemptuous attacks on the Ain al-Asad base in #Iraq are completely unacceptable,” tweeted Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod. The Danish armed forces said that two Danes, who were in the camp at the time of the attack, were unharmed.

( Jowharwith AFP and AP)