At least a dozen missiles fired from Iran struck near a United States Consulate compound being built outside the city of Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq early Sunday morning, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and media outlets affiliated with it and the government posted details about the attack, in an indirect claim of responsibility. The missile fire came four days after Iran vowed revenge against Israel for an airstrike in Syria that killed four people, including at least two members of the Revolutionary Guards.
Only minor injuries and damage were reported in the attack, which security officials said hit near but not inside the huge new U.S. consulate complex under construction in a sparsely populated area north of Erbil. The minimal impact would suggest that the strike had been calibrated not to bring further retaliation from the United States or Israel, which Iranian-backed media said was the target of the strike. There are no known Israeli sites in Iraq.
But the attack also came after nuclear talks between Iran and world powers reached an impasse, and it was unclear what affect it might have on efforts to resume the negotiations.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi of Iraq condemned the missile strike on Twitter, calling it “an attack on the security of our people.” Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, which includes Erbil, said on Facebook that the city “will not bow to the cowards who carried out the terrorist attack.”
Kurdistan’s counterterrorism force said in a statement that 12 ballistic missiles had been fired at a point near the U.S. consulate site, which is still under construction and is not being staffed yet, officials said.
The attack used ballistic missiles rather than the rockets commonly used by Iranian-backed militia groups, officials said.
Kurdish officials said the consulate site was the target. But one Iraqi news outlet affiliated with an Iranian-backed network of Shiite militias, Sabereen News, reported that the target was two secret Israeli intelligence bases in Erbil, and that the strike was in retaliation for the Israeli air attack that killed two Guards Corps members. And Iranian killing in Syria of two high-ranking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran in a recent Israeli air raid. Iranian state television said the targets were “under the supervision of the Zionist regime in Erbil.”
Iranian proxies in Iraq last year used drone strikes to target a C.I.A. hangar inside the airport complex in Erbil used by the U.S. military, according to U.S. officials at the time. Iranian-backed groups frequently cite close links between Israeli intelligence and the C.I.A. The new U.S. consulate outside Erbil is intended to be a hub for U.S. government operations, including U.S. intelligence agencies.
The sprawling new consulate, one of the biggest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world, is in the Masif area about eight miles from Erbil, which is also home to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other senior officials from his party.
Iraqi political parties including Mr. Barzani’s party and a bloc loyal to the Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr are in the process of trying to form a government after elections last year resulted in heavy losses by traditional Iranian-backed parties.
Mr. Sadr, whose coalition is the biggest single bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, and who has had a tumultuous relationship with Iran over the years, condemned the strike. On Twitter, he described the attack as an attempt to sow division, saying the Kurds were “the lung of Iraq and a part of a whole that cannot be divided.”
Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is Kurdish, said the timing of the attack was aimed at obstructing the process of government formation. “We must stand firmly against attempts to plunge the country into chaos,” he said in a statement.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has expanded its security, political and religious influence in the country by funding and training militia groups, some of them with political wings. Over the years, those fighters have battled American troops, Sunni insurgents and the militants of the Islamic State.
Iran has said that its goal is to drive the U.S. military out of Iraq entirely, even in its current role of providing advice and assistance to Iraq’s military without engaging in combat. In the past few years, many Iraqis have pushed back against Iran’s influence, seeing it as foreign meddling destabilizing their country.
Shortly after the attack Sunday, social media and Telegram accounts affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps posted videos that showed missiles setting off a massive fireball and a giant plume of smoke. Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, said that in addition to the dozen missiles, 14 BM-21 Grad rockets also struck targets in Erbil.
The governor of Erbil province said two civilians were slightly wounded in the attack. A spokesman for the regional government, Lawk Ghafuri, said that the missiles did not hit the new U.S. Consulate being built about eight miles from Erbil, but that they landed near it. A Kurdish satellite television network, K24, reported that its offices on the same road had been struck. It posted photos of offices and hallways with collapsed ceilings.
The Revolutionary Guards had threatened to retaliate for the Israeli strike in Syria. The two members of the Guards killed in the strike played a key role in Iran’s attempt to provide Hezbollah with assistance that would make its rockets and missiles much more accurate, according to a senior Israeli defense official. The Israeli defense establishment has called on units to upgrade their alert status, mostly in the Air Force and intelligence in light of the threats of retaliation by Iran.
News outlets and social media accounts affiliated with the Guards also said the strike occurred around 1:30 a.m. local time, the same time that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was killed by an American drone strike in January 2020. Days after the general was killed, Iran retaliated with missile strikes on an American base in Iraq, injuring about 100 U.S. military personnel.
“This is not at all a coincidence,” Sabereen News said of the timing of Sunday’s strike.
The strike near Erbil could create another obstacle for diplomatic efforts underway to revive the 2015 deal over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States and Iran have been indirectly negotiating in Vienna for months. On Friday, a pause was announced in the talks, after Russia demanded exemptions from sanctions and a written guarantee that it could carry out economic trade with Iran under the deal. The United States refused.
The new American consulate being built outside Erbil will eventually replace the existing one in a densely populated Erbil suburb, which has been the target of previous attacks. Construction on the new compound, which will be one of the largest American consulates in the world, began four years ago. It had been due to open this year, but progress was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Jane Arraf, Ronen Bergman, Falih Hassan and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.