Iran fired a number of missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US troops Wednesday in retaliation for the American strike that killed a top Iranian general last week. The early morning attack presents President Donald Trump with the biggest test of his presidency to date.
A US official told CNN that there were no initial reports of any US casualties from the attack, but an assessment of the impact of the strikes is underway. Iraq’s joint military command said there were no casualties among Iraqi military forces.
“Between 1:45 a.m. and 2:45 a.m., Iraq came under an attack of 22 missiles,” the Iraqi military said in a statement. “All missiles struck coalition bases.”
White House aides had initially made plans for a possible address to the nation by Trump after the missile strikes, according to two officials, but a White House official said the President would not speak immediately.
Trump later tweeted, “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”
The attack comes days after the US killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The administration had sought to cast that strike as an attempt to de-escalate tensions with Iran, but Tehran has described it as an “act of war” and “state terrorism.”
In a televised address to the nation Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran gave the US “a slap in the face last night,” in reference to the attacks.
He added that America had cast Soleimani as a “terrorist,” which was “unjust and unfair.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite wing of the Iranian military, said in a statement that the attacks on Iraqi bases were “hard revenge” for the death of Soleimani. The IRGC said any country housing US troops could be subject to “hostile and aggressive acts” and called on American citizens to demand the government remove US troops from the region.
It warned the US: “If you repeat your wickedness or take any additional movements or make additional aggression, we will respond with more painful and crushing responses.”
Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at the al-Asad airbase, which houses US troops, and American and coalition forces in the town of Erbil, Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Tuesday evening.
Iraq received “an official verbal message” from Iran about the missile attack shortly before midnight on Wednesday, according to a statement from Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.
He said that Iraq was told that: “The strike would be limited to the whereabouts of the US military in Iraq, without giving the exact location.” Once they received the warning, Iraqi military leaders were warned “to take the necessary precautions.”
“No casualties so far from the Iraqi side, and we have not officially received information on the losses from the coalition forces,” the Prime Minister added.
In recent days, US bases have “been on high alert due to indications that the Iranian regime planned to attack our forces and interests in the region,” said Pentagon spokesperson 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,” he added.
An initial assessment suggests that the missiles struck areas of the al-Asad base not populated by Americans, according to a US military official and a senior administration official.
Officials have said the US is awaiting daylight to get a full assessment of the results of the strikes.
Another US military official told CNN the military had enough warning of the launches that they had time to sound alarms. People in harm’s way were able to get to safety, according to the official.
In Erbil, at least two ballistic missiles hit separate areas, two Kurdish security officials tell CNN. One missile landed inside the perimeter of Erbil International Airport without exploding, the second hit an area roughly 20 miles west of Erbil without causing casualties.
Trump had visited the base in December 2018 after Christmas. Vice President Mike Pence also visited the base in November 2019.
Iran warns the US
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter that the response was meant to be proportionate to the American attack that killed Soleimani. The top diplomat also said Iran “concluded” its widely anticipated response Soleimani’s killing.
“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” Zarif tweeted. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Meanwhile the IRGC warned warned it would target any regional state that becomes a platform for US aggression, according to state TV.
Amid renewed Iranian threats to also hit Israeli cities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his own warning to Iran Wednesday. “Anyone who tries to attack us will suffer the most devastating blow,” he told a press conference in Jerusalem.
Attack are a direct challenge to Trump
The rockets pose a direct challenge to Trump, who issued a threat to Iran on Tuesday, just hours before the attacks began on the bases. “If Iran does anything that it shouldn’t be doing, they will be suffering the consequences and very strongly,” the President said.
In the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, Trump repeatedly stressed that the deadly drone strike was meant to reduce violence. “We took action last night to stop a war,” he told reporters a day after the attack. “We did not take action to start a war.”
Trump’s message later shifted to warning of a “disproportionate” attack that could include targeting Iran’s cultural sites, a war crime.
Iran’s decision to attack is a “huge gamble,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor and Iran expert at the University of Ottawa who said that leaders in Tehran have included Trump’s domestic political concerns in their calculations. The President ran on a platform of ending US involvement in the messy Middle East entanglements.
“Iran assesses Trump does not want to get bogged down in a large scale war in the Middle East, and that this gives it more margin to maneuver,” Juneau wrote on Twitter. “Needless to say, this is a HUGE gamble given how unpredictable Trump is.”
Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said Iran’s attack was a foregone conclusion after the Ayatollah announced there would be retaliation. Further escalation will depend on Trump’s ability to absorb the attack and a few casualties, she said.
“From Trump’s rhetoric, he doesn’t seem as if he’s willing to absorb any Iranian retaliation — no matter how proportional it is to the US attack that killed Soleimani — and that means we’re locked into an escalatory spiral that will push us into war that will unfold on Iranian territory, but also in the rest of region, including Iraq,” Slim said.
European Union leaders have urged calm. “The current crisis affects not only the region, but all of us,” said European Commission President Ursula con der Leyen during a press conference Wednesday.
“The use of weapons must stop now to give space to dialogue.”
In the US, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was discussing the situation in Iran when she was handed a note with news of the attack, lawmakers who attended the meeting said.
Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, said she paused the discussion to tell the members of the Steering Committee of the news.
“Pray,” Pelosi told members, according to Rep. Debbie Dingell.