The top US general on Wednesday said a barrage of Iranian missiles fired at two bases in Iraq earlier in the day were intended to kill American soldiers, who only escaped because of effective US warning systems.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley dismissed suggestions that Iran did not intend to kill Americans with its missiles, which struck the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Irbil, both housing American and other foreign troops with the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group.
“I believe, based on what I saw and what I know, that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft and to kill personnel. That’s my own personal assessment,” Milley told reporters.
“But we took sufficient defensive measures that there were no casualties to US personnel, coalition personnel, contractors or Iraqis.”
Iranians fired a total of 16 missiles in the latest strikes, Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said. Eleven hit the airbase, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and one targeted the base in Irbil, in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The missiles were described as likely short-range with 1,000- to 2,000-pound warheads. Four failed to detonate, they said.
Officials also said that the US was aware of preparations for the attack. It’s unclear if any intelligence identified specific targets or was more general.
Ain al-Asad was first used by American forces after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and it later was used by American troops in the fight against the Islamic State group. It houses about 1,500 US and coalition forces. Trump visited it in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. Vice President Mike Pence visited both Ain al-Asad and Irbil in November.
Esper said that the United States has reestablished some deterrence toward Iran in the wake of the January 3 drone strike that killed senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
“I think at this point with the strikes we took against KH in late December and then our actions with regard to Soleimani, I believe that we’ve restored a level of deterrence with them,” he told reporters, referring to Kataeb Hezbollah, an armed Iraqi group backed by Iran.
“But we will see. Time will tell,” Esper said.
Esper also downplayed the firing of two rockets late Wednesday into Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where the US and other foreign embassies are located and many US troops are based.
“We should have some expectation that the Shia militia groups, either directed or not directed by Iran, will continue in some way, shape or form to try and undermine our presence there, either politically or, you know, take some type of kinetic actions against us or do Lord-knows-what,” Esper told reporters.
Earlier, US President Donald Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily to Iran’s missile strikes.
Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, which spiraled after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Soleimani. Iran’s response overnight Tuesday was its most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Even so, Trump’s takeaway was that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
Despite such conciliatory talk, the region remained on edge, and American troops, including a quick-reaction force dispatched over the weekend, were on high alert. Last week Iranian-backed militia besieged the US Embassy in Baghdad, and Tehran’s proxies in the region remain able to carry out attacks such as the one on December 27 that killed a US contractor and set off the most recent round of hostilities.
Hours after Trump spoke, an ‘incoming’ siren went off in Baghdad’s Green Zone after what seemed to be small rockets “impacted” the diplomatic area, a Western official said. There were no reports of casualties
There is no obvious path to diplomatic engagement, as Trump pledged to add to his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. He said the new, unspecified sanctions would remain in place “until Iran changes its behavior.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the overnight strike was not necessarily the totality of Iran’s response.
“Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”