Rockets pound air base hosting US troops in Iraq, two days before Pope visit starts

A barrage of rockets pounded an Iraqi base hosting US-led coalition troops on Wednesday just two days before Pope Francis is due to arrive in Iraq for the first ever papal visit to the country. 

At least 10 rockets hit Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7.20am, coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto said. 

Speaking to The Independent from the nearby area of Baghdadi, residents described hearing the base’s sirens and then at least 10 huge explosions which folllowed. 

They said people fleeing the area told them there had been several wounded. 

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack or confirmation of casualties but Iraqi media reported that one civilian contractor had died after having a heart attack during the barrage. 

Later, the Iraqi military released a statement saying the attack did not cause significant losses and that security forces had found the launch pad used for the missiles.

Another official and local residents said that they had been found in the Al-Baghdadi area. 

Wednesday’s attack comes just ahead of a three-day visit of Pope Francis who he is expected to visit six cities across Iraq including war-ravaged Mosul to the north and in the centre Najaf, where he will meet Iraq’s top Shia cleric, grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Security has been tightened across the country with Iraqi clerics saying as many as 10,000 additional personnel will be deployed to ensure the trip goes smoothly. 

Tensions have soared in recent weeks with tit-for-tat attacks between US forces and Iran-backed militias casting a long shadow on the historic papal visit. 

Wednesday’s rocket attack was the first since the US struck militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week that killed one militiaman.

The US said that strike was in response to a spate of rocket attacks on US presence in Iraq, including one that killed a coalition contractor from the Philippines outside the Erbil airport.

After that border strike, the Pentagon said it was a “proportionate military response” taken after consulting coalition partners.

Marotto said the Iraqi security forces were leading an investigation into the Wednesday’s attack on Ain al-Asad.

Ain al-Asad air base

(AP)

Iraqi media reported that 10 Katyusha rockets had hit the base. Despite the security concerns the Pope said on Wednesday he was determined to travel to Iraqi because “the people cannot be let down for a second time”.

Pope Francis, who is due to arrive on Friday, asked for prayers so that the visit “can take place in the best possible way and bring about the desired fruits”.Previous plans for Popes to visit Iraq have ended in failure. 

The late Pope John Paul II was unable to go in 2000, when negotiations broke down with the government of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

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