US warns of military response to rocket attack on Iraq base

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FILE - This Dec. 29, 2019, aerial file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq. At least 10 rockets targeted a military base in western Iraq that hosts U.S.-led coalition troops on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, the coalition and the Iraqi military said. It was not immediately known if there were any casualties. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File)

BAGHDAD – The White House warned that the U.S. may consider a military response to the rocket attack on Wednesday that hit an air base in western Iraq where American and coalition troops are housed, raising concerns this could trigger a new round of escalating violence.

A U.S. contractor died after at least 10 rockets slammed into the base. And while no group claimed responsibility, it was the first strike since the U.S. bombed Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week.

Heightened tensions with Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq could lead to more attacks, complicating the Biden administration’s desire to open talks with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal, as well as the ongoing U.S. strategy to focus more attention on Asia.

Asked about the attack, President Joe Biden told reporters, “we are following that through right now." He added, “Thank God, no one was killed by the rocket, but one individual, a contractor, died of a heart attack. But we’re identifying who’s responsible and we’ll make judgments” about a response.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that the “calculated” U.S. airstrikes last week could be a model for a military response. Those strikes were in response to an attack on American forces in northern Iraq earlier in February.

“If we assess further response is warranted, we will take action again in a manner and time of our choosing,” Psaki said.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. contractor “suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering” from the attack and died shortly afterward. He said there were no service members injured and all are accounted for. British and Danish troops also are among those stationed at the base.

The U.S. airstrikes last week, which killed one member of the Iran-aligned militia, had stoked fears of another cycle of tit-for-tat attacks as happened more than a year ago. Those attacks included the U.S. drone strike in January 2020 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad and set off months of increased troops levels in the region.