A suicide bomber struck the U.S. consulate building in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Friday afternoon.
Kurdish authorities said that at least three people were killed – a Kurdish security official at the scene said the dead were the three attackers – and five wounded. Among the wounded were two Westerners who were in a restaurant across the street, witnesses said.
Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, said in a post on Twitter that all consulate personnel had been accounted for and that there were no reports of injuries among them. He included the hashtag #VBIED, short for vehicle-born improvised explosive device.
The Islamic State, which is also pressing offensives in the cities of Ramadi and Baiji, claimed responsibility for the explosion in an Internet post.
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The attack was the first direct assault on U.S. facilities in Iraq since the Islamic State took control of much of the northern and central areas of the country last summer, and only the second bombing in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a city considered so safe that the United States moved many of its diplomats here from Baghdad when the Islamic State captured the city of Mosul and threatened Baghdad last year.
The Kurdish official at the scene told McClatchy that three attackers had approached a checkpoint near the consulate in an SUV, apparently intending to attack on foot to make room for a suicide bomber, who was either also on foot or in the car. They were spotted by peshmerga security forces stationed outside the consulate, who opened fire. The security official said the three attackers were killed, though whether they were killed by gunshots or detonated explosives was unclear. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity, as he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists.
Gunfire was heard in the neighborhood for several minutes after an initial explosion.
The heavily guarded facility, which houses diplomats and a military command center used to coordinate the air campaign led by the United States against the Islamic State, is in a quiet residential and predominantly Christian section of the Kurdish capital. It’s accessible only through a heavily guarded pedestrian entrance.
The facility is one of three key command centers that coordinate operations among the Iraqi and Kurdish governments – which operate independent security forces in the fight against the Islamic State – and the U.S.-led coalition, which provides air support.
It was unknown whether the attack in Irbil was intended to disrupt the coalition response to the significant Islamic State offensives unfolding elsewhere. One of them is in the western province of Anbar, where the provincial capital of Ramadi is in danger of being overrun, and the other is in Baiji, where the Islamic State is trying to take control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery.
The Iraqi government described the explosion in Irbil as due to an improvised explosive device on the road outside the consulate – a description that might mean a car bomb or one carried by a person.
The explosion was followed by heavy gunfire from security forces, who claimed to have been engaging other gunmen. Kurdish peshmerga, along with Kurdish internal security forces, quickly closed off the area as fires raged through a strip mall of coffee shops and restaurants popular with Irbil’s expatriate community across from the consulate.
A U.S. military helicopter circled the area as at least three ambulances evacuated wounded. One peshmerga guard could be seen being loaded into a pickup by his comrades as security forces attempted to disperse bystanders and journalists from the area by frequently firing automatic weapons into the air.
CORRECTION: An earlier version gave the wrong title for Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran.