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Iran Launches Attack on U.S. Bases in Iraq
Hours after the strike, both Washington and Tehran showed signs they wanted to de-escalate.
Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed on Tuesday, in what appeared to be a coordinated response to the killing of the most powerful Iranian military commander in a U.S. drone strike last week.
But initial reports after the strike suggested that there were no American casualties, and both Washington and Tehran signaled there might be a window of opportunity to de-escalate tensions that have skyrocketed since the summer. In a tweet late Tuesday night, Trump said: “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!” The president said he would be making a statement to the nation on Wednesday morning.
In Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said early Wednesday local time that Iran had “concluded” its attacks and did “not seek escalation or war.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed further retaliation for the U.S. killing of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, but stopped short of threatening additional military attacks. He indicated that the end goal was to expel U.S. troops from the Middle East.
“Last night, they were given one slap,” he said Wednesday. “Such military actions are not enough as far the importance of retaliation is concerned. What’s important is that their corruption-creating presence should end.”
The remarks capped off a panicked 12 hours in Washington and the region. Tehran immediately claimed responsibility for the strike, a rare move for a regime that primarily relies on proxies to carry out attacks. Iranian officials previewed the attack earlier in the day, vowing a direct and proportionate response to Trump’s decision to kill Suleimani on Jan. 3.
“The brave soldiers of IRGC’s aerospace unit have launched a successful attack with tens of ballistic missiles on [Ain] al-Assad military base in the name of martyr Gen. Qassem Soleimani,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in a statement.
The Pentagon could not immediately confirm whether there had been any casualties. “We are working on initial battle damage assessments,” said spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. “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.”
Iraqi security officials told CNN that there were Iraqi casualties from the attacks, underscoring how Iraq has become caught in the crossfire of the increasingly dangerous escalation between Tehran and Washington. The British Defence Ministry said Wednesday that there were no U.K. casualties in the strikes.
Trump has been briefed and is closely monitoring the situation, according to the White House. Meanwhile, his national security team quickly convened in response to the attacks: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were seen arriving at the White House around 7:30 on Tuesday evening, roughly two hours after the attacks began. They left a few hours later.
The Pentagon confirmed late Tuesday that the missiles were launched directly from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting both U.S. military and coalition personnel at Ain al-Assad and Erbil. Another base in Iraq, Camp Taji, was reportedly hit by rockets. Trump and first lady Melania Trump toured the Ain al-Assad base during a surprise Christmas visit to troops in 2018.
NBC News reported that Iranian air force jets also had deployed.
Senior administration officials said earlier Tuesday that the United States was prepared to respond to any retaliation by Iran. On Jan. 5, Trump tweeted a warning to Tehran not to attack U.S. bases. “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!” the U.S. president said.
But Iranian officials have signaled for days that Tehran was planning a direct and proportional response to Suleimani’s killing. On Sunday, Khamenei’s military advisor, Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, told CNN in an interview that Iran would retaliate directly against U.S. “military sites.”
Immediately following the Iranian missile attack, Zarif tweeted: “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” Zarif said Iran had targeted the base from which a “cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.” He added: “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter.” Article 51 protects the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”
Pompeo, addressing reporters on Tuesday before the attacks took place, said: “In the event the Iranians make another bad choice, the president will respond in a way that he did last week, which was decisive, serious, and messaged Iran about the constraints that we are going to place on that regime so that it doesn’t continue to put American lives at risk.”
Meanwhile, Esper echoed Pompeo’s comments Tuesday afternoon in the Pentagon briefing room. “We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” he said.
Reports trickled in overnight that U.S. forces were on high alert throughout the region in preparation for a major attack. CNN reported that U.S. troops were aware of threats from Iranian drones—the same ones that had been used to strike a major Saudi oil facility in September 2019. Since the strike on Suleimani, the Pentagon has ordered roughly 10,000 additional forces to the region, on top of the 14,000 that were sent in 2019.
Update, Jan. 7, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect breaking news.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman