Large explosion rocks Green Zone in Baghdad near western embassies

Large explosion rocks Baghdad’s Green Zone as rocket lands close to the heavily fortified US embassy

  • Katyusha rocket fell in the middle of Green Zone without causing any loss of life
  • Police said ‘initial reports indicate rocket fired from open field’ in south Baghdad
  • Comes amid increased tensions after White House ordered warships to region

A rocket has been fired into Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone tonight – where the US Embassy is based.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig Gen Yahya Rasoul said a Katyusha rocket fell near the statue of the Unknown Soldier, less than a mile from the embassy.

He said the military is investigating the cause but that the rocket was believed to have been fired from east Baghdad. 

A police source added: ‘Initial reports indicate that the rocket was fired from an open field’.

The US Embassy in Baghdad (pictured) has ordered all non-essential, non-emergency government staff on Wednesday to leave Iraq immediately amid escalating tensions with Iran. Washington did not publicly provide any evidence to back up claims of an increased threat from Tehran. A rocket was fired today into Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone – where the US Embassy is based

Police patrols rushed to the Mohammed al-Qasim highway in eastern Baghdad in search of any suspicious vehicles spotted that may be carrying rocket launchers after they received a tip the rocket had been fired from inside a truck.

They were searching for suspects and the rocket launcher in the eastern district of New Baghdad.

The area is home to Iran-backed Shiite militias, with some not wanting the US in Iraq.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig Gen Yahya Rasoul said a Katyusha rocket (pictured) fell near the statue of the Unknown Soldier, less than a mile from the embassy

Two Baghdad-based diplomatic sources said they heard the blast close to the compound – which houses government buildings and other foreign embassies.

Alert sirens sounded briefly in Baghdad after the explosion, according to reports from the east side of the Tigris River.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

The Katyusha multiple rocket launcher is an inexpensive type of rocket artillery that can deliver explosives to a target quicker than conventional artillery, but is less accurate.

The Green Zone is one of the world’s most high-security institutional quarters.

Located in the centre of the Iraqi capital, it houses parliament, the prime minister’s office, the presidency, other key institutions, top officials’ homes and embassies.

The US embassy in Baghdad – the world’s largest – lies within the fortified neighbourhood, also known as the International Zone, and is surrounded by concrete walls.

The apparent attack comes amid heightened tensions across the Persian Gulf after the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region earlier this month to counter an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran. 

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge sail in formation as part of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group in the Arabian Sea on Friday

The US also ordered nonessential staff out of its diplomatic posts in Iraq on Wednesday.

Iraq hosts more than 5,000 US troops and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want US forces to leave. 

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle the Islamic State group after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. 

Iranian-backed militias fought alongside US-backed Iraqi troops against IS, gaining influence and power.

Now, amid an escalating conflict between the US and Iran, Iraq is once again vulnerable to becoming caught up in the power play. 

An attack targeting US interests in Iraq would be detrimental to the country’s recent efforts at recovering and reclaiming its status in the Arab world.

The US Navy revealed it conducted exercises in the Arabian Sea over the weekend, with an aircraft carrier strike group ordered to the Persian Gulf to counter an alleged, unspecified threat from Iran.

The USS Abraham Lincoln sails in the Arabian Sea near the USS Kearsarge. It is part of the US Fifth Fleet which was sent to the region amid an unexplained threat from Iran 

The Navy said the exercises – on Friday and Saturday – included air-to-air training and steaming in formation and manoeuvring. Pictured: Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Nicholas Hawkins, from Houston, Texas, signals an MV-22 Osprey to land on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea

The Navy said today the exercises and training were conducted with the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group in coordination with the US Marine Corps, highlighting US ‘lethality and agility to respond to threat,’ as well as to deter conflict and preserve US strategic interests.

Also taking part in exercises were the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, both deployed to the US Fifth Fleet area of operations in the Persian Gulf.

The Navy said the exercises – on Friday and Saturday – included air-to-air training and steaming in formation and manoeuvring.

US pressures Baghdad over Iran-backed militias 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit to Baghdad earlier this month came after US intelligence showed Iran-backed Shi’ite militias positioning rockets near bases housing US forces, according to two Iraqi security sources.

He told Iraq’s top brass to keep the militias, which are expanding their power in Iraq and now form part of its security apparatus, in check, the sources said. If not, the US would respond with force.

As tensions between Washington and Tehran increase, Iraq finds itself caught between neighbouring Iran, whose regional influence has grown in recent years, and the US.

‘The message from the Americans was clear. They wanted guarantees that Iraq would stop those groups threatening US interests,’ a senior Iraqi military source with knowledge of Pompeo’s trip said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit to Baghdad this month came after U.S. intelligence showed Iran-backed Shi’ite militias positioning rockets near bases housing U.S. forces, according to two Iraqi security sources. Pompeo is pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday

‘They said if the US were attacked on Iraqi soil, it would take action to defend itself without coordinating with Baghdad.’

The US State Department declined to comment on the details of Pompeo’s discussions. He had said after the trip: ‘We don’t want anyone interfering in their country (Iraq), certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq.’

The second Iraqi security source said: ‘Communications intercepted by the Americans showed some militia groups redeployed to take up suspicious positions, which the Americans considered provocations.’

He said the Iraqis were told that any threat from the groups ‘would be dealt with directly by the Americans with force.’

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday told reporters that the Iraqi side had not observed ‘movements that constitute a threat to any side. We clarified that to the Americans – the government is doing its duty to protect all parties.’

Tensions between Washington and Tehran intensified early this month as US President Donald Trump’s administration stepped up sanctions pressure by ending waivers for some countries to purchase Iranian oil – part of efforts to roll back the Islamic Republic’s expanding regional clout.

It also said last week it was sending additional military forces to the Middle East. 

Iraq would struggle to rein in the Iran-backed militias.

The paramilitaries are formally part of Iraq’s security forces but operate semi-independently, backed by powerful Iran-allied politicians, and are expanding their economic power.

Spokesmen for two Iran-backed paramilitary groups said there were no plans to target US forces, saying talk of threats was ‘psychological warfare’ by Washington.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran intensified early this month as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration stepped up sanctions pressure by ending waivers for some countries to purchase Iranian oil – part of efforts to roll back the Islamic Republic’s expanding regional clout

The US says Iran is the biggest threat to peace in the region. It wants to weaken the paramilitaries which have expanded their sway over land stretching to Syria and Lebanon, and for Iraq to decrease dependence on Iranian gas exports.

Iran sees Iraq as an important link to the world in the face of US sanctions, and analysts say the positioning of pro-Iran forces and rockets indicates Tehran is prepared at least to threaten the United States with violence.

The Iraqi security source said US officials discussed with Iraqi officials Iran-backed militia deployed along the Syrian border, where US troops have helped fight Islamic State.

Pompeo said last week: ‘We’ve urged the Iraqi government … to get all of those forces under Iraqi central control.’

The groups say they already follow the orders of the Iraqi state and are not planning to target U.S. interests.

‘American claims are baseless. It reminds us of the big lie of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,’ said Laith al-Athari, a spokesman for the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, referring to the pretext for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the umbrella grouping of mostly Shi’ite militias, numbers around 150,000 men.

There are currently an estimated 5,200 US troops in Iraq, having peaked at 170,000 in the years following the invasion.

Analysts say the positioning of missiles by militias backed by Iran is likely meant as a symbolic threat to the United States, rather than a real plan to use them.

Professor Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics said Iran has in the past moved such weapons ‘to slowly ratchet up the heat under the US in Iraq when it feels it is seeking to threaten Iran’s interests.’

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