BAGHDAD: A US contractor died of cardiac failure after rocket fire hit an Iraqi base hosting coalition troops Wednesday, the Pentagon said, just two days ahead of Pope Francis' visit to the country.
Around 10 rockets slammed into the sprawling Ain Al-Assad military base in Iraq's western desert after several weeks of escalating US-Iran tensions on Iraqi soil.
"A US civilian contractor suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering and sadly passed away shortly after," the US Defense Department said, noting there were no current reports of injuries among US service personnel.
Francis was quick to say he would go ahead with the first-ever papal visit to the war-scarred country so as not to "disappoint" the Iraqi people.
"The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage," the 84-year-old pontiff said in his Wednesday address. "For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much."
Ain Al-Assad hosts Iraqi forces and US-led coalition troops helping fight Daesh. It is also a base for drones the coalition uses to surveil extremist sleeper cells.
The base's missile system was "engaged in defense of our forces," said the Pentagon, noting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been briefed and was closely monitoring the situation.
Iraqi security forces were on the scene and investigating, but it was too early to attribute responsibility, it added.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto said 10 rockets hit the base at 7:20 am (0420 GMT) and Iraqi security forces said they had found the platform from which 10 "Grad-type rockets" were fired.
Western security sources told AFP the rockets were Iranian-made Arash models, which are 122mm artillery rockets and heavier than those seen in similar attacks.
The Iranian Tasnim news agency reported last year that the country's Revolutionary Guards had developed the Arash because it was more precise than other models.
The US contractor's death marked the third fatality in rocket strikes in recent weeks, after an attack targeting US-led troops in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil left two people dead.
Days later, more rockets hit a US military contracting company working north of the capital and the US embassy in Baghdad, but only injuries were reported.
In response, the US carried out an air strike on February 26 against Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary force stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Washington said it struck on the Syrian side of the border but Kataeb claimed one of its fighters killed in the bombardment was protecting "Iraqi territory".
Iraqi and Western officials have blamed hardline pro-Iran factions for the spate of rocket attacks, including some said to have established front groups to defect blame.
Analysts have pointed to both domestic and international reasons for the rise in tensions.
Hardline Iraqi groups have an interest in ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi following his pledges to rein in rogue militias.
Kadhemi tweeted after Wednesday's attack that "any party that thinks it is above the state or can impose its agenda on Iraq and the future of its people is delusional".
Observers also say the rockets may be Tehran's way of pressuring Washington, which under President Joe Biden is offering to revive the Iran nuclear deal abandoned by his predecessor Donald Trump in 2018.
Iran is demanding the US lift sanctions immediately, while the US wants Iran to move first by returning to previous nuclear commitments.
Tensions between the two arch-rivals peaked in January 2020 after a US drone strike at Baghdad airport killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
In response, Iran launched ballistic missiles on Ain al-Assad and Arbil, wounding dozens.
Over the next 10 months, dozens of rockets and roadside bombs targeted Western security, military and diplomatic sites across Iraq - some of them deadly.
Last year's attacks came to a near-complete halt in October following a truce with the hardliners, but they have resumed at a quickening pace over the past three weeks.
Despite the attack, and the Covid-19 pandemic, Francis said he would go ahead with his visit, during which he is to meet top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
"The Iraqi people are waiting for us, they were waiting for Saint John Paul II, who was forbidden to go," he said.
"One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful."
While he is not scheduled to visit western Iraq, Francis will spend time in Baghdad and Arbil, both of which were hit by rocket attacks last month.
To control the crowds during the pope's visit, Iraq is set to extend weekend lockdowns to cover the entire papal visit from March 5-8.