Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched a missile attack against what they called “anti-Iranian terrorist groups” in a northern Iraqi city, setting off large explosions and sirens, including at the American Consulate, around midnight on Tuesday.
The strike in the city of Erbil killed at least four civilians, according to the Kurdistan Regional Security Council in Iraq, and air traffic was diverted briefly, officials said.
A separate ballistic missile attack hit targets in Syria connected to the Islamic State, the Guards said.
A statement by the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps said that the missile strike in Erbil had been aimed at “the destruction of espionage headquarters and places that anti-Iranian terrorist groups” used to plan a suicide bombing attack in Kerman, Iran, that killed 86 people this month at a memorial procession for Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. The Guards also cited an assault in December on a police headquarters in Rask, Iran, that killed at least 11 officers.
Some Iranian leaders initially appeared to blame Israel for the attack at the Suleimani memorial, though the Islamic State claimed responsibility for it. In a statement later on Tuesday, the Revolutionary Guards appeared to return to the narrative that blamed Israel, saying the target in Erbil had been the local headquarters for Mossad, Israel’s spy agency. Israel did not immediately respond.
The attacks at the memorial and at the police station were seen as signs of Iran’s vulnerability to infiltration by extremist groups despite its formidable intelligence service and police capabilities.
Direct attacks by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, while not new, have been far less frequent than those conducted by Iran’s proxies. Those militant groups have launched at least 130 assaults on U.S. installations in Iraq and Syria since the war in the Gaza Strip began in October, after Hamas led an attack in southern Israel that, Israeli officials say, killed 1,200 people. Israel retaliated by bombarding the strip, killing more than 23,000 people and displacing millions, according to Gazan health officials.
Several of the explosions early Tuesday occurred near a new U.S. Consulate in Erbil under construction, and several other explosions happened near the Erbil airport. An American official said: “No U.S. facilities were impacted. We’re not tracking damage to infrastructure or injuries at this time.”
The U.S. State Department said: “The United States strongly condemns Iran’s attacks in Erbil today and offers condolences to the families of those who were killed. We oppose Iran’s reckless missile strikes, which undermine Iraq’s stability.”
Erbil is the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and is its most populous city. The Kurdish region’s security council called on the international community to condemn the Iranian attack, which it described as “a blatant violation of the sovereignty of the Kurdistan region and Iraq and the federal government.”
In a statement, the council said that “Erbil is a stable region and has never been a threat to any party,” adding: “The Revolutionary Guard said that the attack targeted several sites of Iranian opposition groups. Unfortunately, they always use baseless excuses to attack Erbil.”
Kifah Mahmood, a former media adviser to Massoud Barzani, the retired longtime leader of Kurdistan, said the Revolutionary Guards had been trying to “cover up their own security failure” in Kerman by staging a retaliatory attack. “But unfortunately,” he said, “the missiles landed on civilians and killed some, and injured others.”
The attacks occurred as Iranian-linked groups have been targeting U.S. bases and camps in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian proxy groups like the Houthi militants in Yemen have been attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea amid Israel’s war against Hamas, the group that controls parts of the Gaza Strip. They are acting, the Houthis say, in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.
Those attacks have heightened tensions in the Middle East, and raised the risk that an already dangerous situation would flare into greater regional violence.
Falih Hassan contributed from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.