Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq early on Wednesday in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike on an Iranian commander whose killing last week raised fears of a wider war in the Middle East.
It was Iran's most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and Iranian state TV said it was in revenge for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose death last week in an American drone strike near Baghdad prompted angry calls to avenge his slaying.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missile strike on the U.S. bases in Iraq a “slap in the face” of the Americans, adding that military retaliation is not sufficient. “The corrupt presence of the U.S. in the region should come to end,” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said there were no immediate reports of casualties, though buildings were still being searched. The Iraqi government later confirmed there were no casualties among Iraqi forces.
Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. The U.S. military said at least two Iraqi facilities hosting U.S.-led coalition personnel were targeted at about 1:30 A.M. (2230 GMT on Tuesday). Iraq’s military said 22 missiles were launched on the Ain al-Asad base and a base in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil.
Iranian officials said Tehran did not want a war and its strikes “concluded” its response to Friday’s killing of Soleimani, a powerful general whose burial in Iran after days of mourning was completed around the same time as Iran’s missile launches.
Iran’s attacks “appeared designed for maximum domestic effect with minimum escalatory risk,” said Henry Rome, analyst with Eurasia Group.
Iran is believed to have deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties, according to U.S. and European government sources familiar with intelligence assessments.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he received notification from Iran just after midnight that its retaliation “was starting or would start soon” and would focus only on U.S. positions. The militaries of Finland and Lithuania, which had personnel at one of the targeted bases, said they received information about an imminent attack and had time to move to shelters or leave the base.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in a tweet that an assessment of casualties and damage from the strikes was under way and that he would make a statement on Wednesday morning.
“All is well!” Trump, who visited one of the targeted sites in Iraq, Ain al-Asad air base, in December 2018, said on Twitter.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani told the U.S. that Washington might have "cut off the arm" of General Qassem Soleimani but America's "leg" in the region would be cut off in response, Iran's Fars news agency reported.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhahu on Wednesday warned that Israel would strike back hard against anyone who attacked it, as he reiterated his support for the U.S.
"Whoever tries to attack us will be dealt the strongest blow," Netanyahu said while speaking at a conference in Jerusalem
He said that Israel "stands completely" beside Trump's decision, saying that the U.S. president should be congratulated for acting "swiftly, boldly and resolutely."
Iranian state television said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and U.S. helicopters and military equipment damaged. It did not provide evidence of how it obtained that information.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Trump on Tuesday discussed developments in Iraq as well as ways to resolve controversial issues in the region and reduce tension, Qatar's Al Jazeera TV channel said.
Germany, Denmark and Norway said none of their troops in Iraq were killed or injured.
The force advised the United States to withdraw its troops from the region to prevent more deaths and warned U.S. allies including Israel not to allow attacks from their territories.
Iranian television reported an official in the Supreme Leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had 100 other potential targets in its sights.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the bases targeted were al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil, Iraq.
“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region,” Hoffman said.
Ain al-Asad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces.
Hours earlier on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should anticipate a response from Iran for the killing of Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards.
Esper declined to detail any intelligence driving that assessment or comment on Iranian military activities that could signal Tehran's intentions. Reuters has reported that Iranian missile forces have been put on a heightened state of alert.
"I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form," Esper told a news briefing at the Pentagon, adding that such retaliation could be through Iran-backed proxy groups or "by their own hand."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran “took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter”.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote in a post on Twitter.
If the U.S. military was spared casualties and Iran takes no further measures to retaliate for Soleimani’s killing, there might be an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to seek a way out to their increasingly violent confrontation.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard warned the U.S. and its regional allies against retaliating over the missile attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The Guard issued the warning via a statement carried by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency.
“We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted,” the Guard said. It also threatened Israel.
After the strikes, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator posted a picture of the Islamic Republic's flag on Twitter, appearing to mimic Trump who posted an American flag following the killing of Soleimani and others Friday.
Asian stock markets, which had been roiled by the attack, pared some of their losses after the tweets from Trump and Zarif. U.S. crude prices also retreated after surging almost 5% on worries any conflict could cut oil supplies.
The oil minister of the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, said the latest events should not be exaggerated. He said there was no global crude shortage and OPEC would respond to any need.
Airlines banned from airspace
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it would ban U.S. airlines from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Other national airlines also issued warnings about flying over the region.
In an apparently unrelated incident, a Ukrainian airliner with 176 people on board crashed in Iran on Wednesday, killing all those on board, due to technical problems soon after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, Iranian media and Ukrainian officials said.
Democrats in the U.S. Congress and some of the party’s presidential contenders warned about the escalating conflict.
“We must ensure the safety of our service members, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war,” U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.
Soleimani, a pivotal figure in orchestrating Iran’s long-standing campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq, was responsible for building up Tehran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East.
He was a national hero to many Iranians but viewed as a dangerous villain by Western governments opposed to Iran’s arc of influence running across the Levant and into the Gulf region.
U.S. officials have said Soleimani was killed because of intelligence indicating forces under his command planned attacks on U.S. targets in the region. But they have not provided evidence.
Before Soleimani was buried his body was taken on a tour of cities in Iraq and Iran, drawing huge crowds, often chanting “Death to America”. His burial on Tuesday was delayed after a stampede that killed at least 56 people, Fars news agency reported.
Iran TV reported Soleimani was buried after the Iranian missile attacks. “His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” it said.
The missiles were launched on Wednesday at the same time of the day that he was killed on Friday. He was buried in the “martyrs section” of a cemetery in his hometown of Kerman.
More than 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq along with other foreign forces as part of a coalition that has trained and backed up Iraqi security forces against the threat of Islamic State militants.
Some 115 German soldiers are stationed in Erbil and all were fine, a spokesman for Bundeswehr operations said. Denmark, which has about 130 soldiers in Iraq, said no Danish soldiers were injured or killed in the strike on al-Asad air base.