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A rocket attack on a US base in northern Iraq killed a contractor and wounded eight people including a US serviceman on Monday night, the State Department and Kurdistan Regional Government said, increasing pressure on Joe Biden, the US president, as he mulls a return to the Iran nuclear deal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “outraged” by the attack targeting the base at Erbil International airport, which was the deadliest on US interests in Iraq in a year.
Rockets also damaged several houses and businesses in civilian areas near the airport, according to the interior ministry of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
The attack was claimed by Saraya Awlia al-Dam a little-known group that one analyst said was a front for an established Iran-backed Iraqi militia which is part of the Iraqi government but opposed to the US presence in Iraq.
“This is a facade group, this is not a new group,” said Hamdi Malik, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a strategy Iran-backed militias have been using… to have plausible deniability.”
He continued: “Our assessment is that this is an Iran-sanctioned attack, if not an Iran-ordered attack.”
Since the election of President Biden, Iran has been hoping for relief from crippling economic sanctions introduced by his predecessor Donald Trump after he unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, arguing it was too lenient.
Hoping to gain leverage and force a return to negotiations, Iran has since progressively reduced its compliance with the agreement to limit its nuclear activities, signed in 2015 with world powers.
But last month Mr Blinken said Iran must resume full compliance with the agreement before the US will honour its commitments or consider lifting sanctions.
Since then there have been a series of small-scale strikes on US interests and those of its Gulf allies, including rocket attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad and drone strikes on a Saudi airport, which analysts and security agencies believe were launched by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Yemen.
Iran has also intensified uranium enrichment, announced new limits on UN nuclear inspectors operating in Iran, and unveiled new drone and missile capabilities.
“They’re not happy with Biden’s approach to negotiations,” said Mr Malik. “Iran thinks they need to escalate to force the Biden administration to come to the negotiating table and then they can de-escalate as a gesture of goodwill.”
On Tuesday, the top United Nations representative in Iraq warned that attacks in the country carried the risk of dangerous escalation.
"Such heinous, reckless acts pose grave threats to stability," Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert wrote on Twitter. “Iraq must be shielded from (external) rivalries.”
In another tweet she wrote: “Iraq already faces multiple crises, and such callous acts as the rocket attack on Erbil cannot be allowed to undermine stability and recovery.”