BAGHDAD (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Iran launched a missile attack on US-led forces in Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday (Jan 8) in retaliation for the US drone strike on an Iranian commander whose killing has raised fears of a wider war in the Middle East.
Iranian officials said the attacks began at 1.20am – the time Maj-Gen Soleimani was killed on Friday by an American drone at the Baghdad International Airport. Twenty-two missiles were fired.
Two of the 17 missiles targeting Ain al-Asad did not go off, the Iraqi military said in a statement. The five on Erbil all targeted coalition headquarters.
There were no casualties among Iraqi forces, the military said.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Teheran’s missile attacks on US targets in Iraq were “a slap on the face” for the United States and it should now pull its forces out of the region.
“Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region,” he said in a televised speech.
“This region will not accept the presence of America,” he said, renewing Teheran’s long-standing demand for Washington to withdraw its forces.
The Iranian supreme leader also ruled out any resumption of talks with Washington on a 2015 nuclear deal. “Talks and sitting for negotiations are the beginning of (US) intervention,” he said.
The US withdrew from the pact between Teheran and world powers in 2018 and has since imposed tough new sanctions, driving down Iran’s oil exports and hammering its economy.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps confirmed that they fired the rockets to retaliate for last week’s killing of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, according to a statement on state TV.
State TV said at least 80 “American terrorists” were killed in attacks involving 15 missiles Teheran launched on US targets in Iraq, adding that none of the missiles were intercepted.
Citing a senior Revolutionary Guards source, the state TV also said Iran had 100 other targets in the region in its sights if Washington took any retaliatory measures. It also said US helicopters and military equipment were “severely damaged”.
The statement advised the US to withdraw its troops from the region to prevent more deaths, state TV said. The statement also warned regional allies of the US that they will be attacked if their countries are used for attacks against Iran.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told the US that Washington might have “cut off the arm” of Maj-Gen Soleimani but America’s “leg” in the region would be cut off in response, Fars news agency reported.
A few hours after the attacks, an Iranian government spokesman said Iran is not seeking war but it will deliver a crushing response to any aggression.
“We thank the Revolutionary Guards’ successful operation... We have never wanted war but any aggression will receive a crushing response,” Ali Rabiei said on Twitter.
The Pentagon did not provide reports of casualties in the attack.
“We are working on initial battle damage assessments,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement, adding that the bases targeted were Al-Asad air base and another in Erbil, Iraq.
“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend US personnel, partners, and allies in the region.”
President Donald Trump said that initial casualty assessments indicated “all is well”.
He tweeted that “assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”
Trump did not go on evening television to address the nation – something of an informal presidential tradition in times of foreign policy crisis – in the immediate hours following Iran’s missile strikes.
However, he said to expect a statement early Wednesday in Washington. “I will be making a statement tomorrow morning,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats when she was handed a note about the attacks as the lawmakers were discussing Mr Trump’s impeachment. She left the room after telling her colleagues to “pray”, Representative Debbie Dingell said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper arrived at the White House following news of the attack. It was unclear what response, if any, the US was planning.
Hours earlier on Tuesday, Mr Esper said the US should anticipate retaliation from Iran over Friday’s killing in Iraq of General Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force.
“I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form,” he told a news briefing at the Pentagon, adding that such retaliation could be through Iran-backed proxy groups outside of Iran or “by their own hand”.
“We’re prepared for any contingency. And then we will respond appropriately to whatever they do.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said later that any retaliatory measures by the United States against Teheran’s missile strike would draw a renewed response, state television reported.
“Americans know now that their bases can be targeted by Iran ... Their bases will be targeted if the United States responds to Iran’s missile attacks in Iraq,” state TV cited the Guards as saying.
A senior official in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office said Iran’s response to the killing of Soleimani so far had been the “weakest” of the Iranian revenge scenarios, state TV reported.
Stock markets in Asia fell sharply on news of the rocket attack, while investor safe havens including the Japanese yen and gold shot higher.
Gen Soleimani, a pivotal figure in orchestrating Iran’s long-standing campaign to drive US forces out of Iraq, was also responsible for building up Teheran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East.
He was a national hero to many Iranians, whether supporters of the clerical leadership or not, 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.
‘WE WILL TAKE REVENGE’
A senior Iranian official said on Tuesday that Teheran was considering several scenarios to avenge Soleimani’s death. Other senior figures have said the Islamic Republic would match the scale of the killing when it responds, but that it would choose the time and place.
“We will take revenge, a hard and definitive revenge,” the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami, told throngs who crowded the streets for Gen Soleimani’s funeral on Tuesday in Kerman, his hometown in southeastern Iran.
Gen Soleimani’s burial went ahead after several hours of delay following a stampede that killed at least 56 people and injured more than 210, according an emergency official quoted by Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.
Gen Soleimani’s body had been taken to holy Shi’ite Muslim cities in Iraq and Iran, as well as the Iranian capital, Teheran, before arriving to be buried in the city cemetery’s “martyrs section”, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.
In each place, huge numbers of people filled thoroughfares, chanting “Death to America” and weeping with emotion.Ayatollah Khamenei wept as he led prayers in Teheran.
Prompted by the strong public backlash over Gen Soleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil, lawmakers in Iraq voted on Sunday to demand a removal of all foreign forces from the country.
More than 5,000 US 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 militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
A Nato official told Reuters it would move some of its several hundred trainers out of Iraq. Canada said on Tuesday some of its 500 Iraq-based forces would be temporarily moved to Kuwait for safety reasons.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a phone call on Tuesday to Iran’s president, urged Teheran to avoid any actions that could worsen regional tensions.
US officials have said Gen Soleimani was killed because of solid intelligence indicating forces under his command planned attacks on US targets in the region, although they have provided no evidence.
Mr Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said 13 “revenge scenarios” were being considered, Fars news agency reported. Even the weakest option would prove “a historic nightmare for the Americans”, he said.