The Iraqi military has said 22 ballistic missiles were fired at two bases used by US and coalition forces in Iraq, as Iran claimed responsibility and dozens of casualties, in a dramatic development of the crisis sparked by the killing of Qassem Soleimani.
The Pentagon confirmed Wednesday’s early morning attacks on the al-Asad and Erbil facilities saying they were still evaluating the damage and their response.
President Donald Trump downplayed the reports of wounded and dead saying “assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”
Iranian state television, however, claimed 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and US helicopters and military equipment damaged, but offered no evidence of how it obtained that information.
Iraq’s military said there were no Iraqis injured in the assault, adding that 17 missiles landed on al-Asad base in the western province of Anbar and five on Erbil city, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
The Iraqi prime ministry condemned "any attacks on its territory" adding that Iran notified Baghdad shortly after midnight that its response to the killing of its top military commander had begun, and that retaliation would be limited to locations where the US military is present.
The missile barrages came hours after tens of thousands of Iranians turned out to mourn the slain Iranian military commander Soleimani – and more than 50 died in a stampede.
Responsibility for the attacks was swiftly claimed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose nonconventional Quds Force Soleimani commanded.
“This morning, courageous fighters of the IRGC’s air force launched a successful operation called Operation Martyr Soleimani,” the IRGC said in a statement. “The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun.”
On Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, added: “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the missile barrage saying it was a "slap in the face" for the Americans. He did not appear to call for further strikes but repeated demands that Washington pull its troops from the region.
"When it comes to confrontation, military actions of these kinds are not enough...the corrupt presence of the US should come to an end," he said to crowds chanting "death to America".
In Washington DC, Mr Trump 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.”
In a statement, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the UK “condemn[s] this attack on Iraqi military bases hosting Coalition – including British – forces”.
“We are concerned by reports of casualties and use of ballistic missiles,” he said. “We urge Iran not to repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, and instead to pursue urgent de-escalation.
“A war in the Middle East would only benefit [Isis] and other terrorist groups.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon confirmed it also believed the missiles had been fired by Iran, rather than one of its proxy forces.
“It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting US military and coalition personnel at Al Asad and Erbil,” Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defence for public affairs, said in a statement. “We are working on initial battle damage assessments.”
He said the base had already been on high alert “due to indications that the Iranian regime planned to attack our forces and interests in the region”.
He added: “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.”
Donald Trump had previously made a personal visit to the Al Asad base, in December 2018.
The Iraqi prime ministry said it refused "any violation of its sovereignty and any attacks on its territory."
It added that Iraq is doing everything in its power to contain the situation to avoid a "devastating all-out war."
The development marked a rapid escalation in the crisis between Tehran and Washington, and a major challenge for Mr Trump, who had campaigned on keeping the US out of further wars in the Middle East.
Tehran’s missile strike came as senior members of congress were finally briefed on the purported threat presented by Soleimani, which led to the decision to kill him. Mere hours before the attacks, Mr Trump had told reporters in the Oval Office: “If Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing, they are going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard warned Washington against retaliating, and told its regional neighbours that if any military action were launched from their territory, they could expect to be attacked in turn.
Mr Esper had warned the US was anticipating a reaction from Iran to the killing of Soleimani, a major regional power broker.
“I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form,” he told a news briefing at the Pentagon on Tuesday afternoon. He added: “We’re prepared for any contingency. And then we will respond appropriately to whatever they do.”
In turn, a senior Iranian official said Tehran 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 the IRCG, General Hossein Salami, told throngs who crowded the streets for Soleimani’s funeral in Kerman, his hometown in southeastern Iran.
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.
The next steps on both sides remained unclear. Some experts suggested the actions by Iran, which had been promised by its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, may have been calculated to satisfy domestic demands for revenge, without provoking a major response from Washington.
Much of the uncertainty lies in the fact that the decision on how the US responds will be made by Mr Trump.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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