The US is seeing indications that Iran has stepped up its readiness to launch short- and medium-range ballistic missiles following the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in an American airstrike, CNN reported Saturday.
The network quoted an unnamed US official with direct knowledge on the issue, as Washington braces for Iran’s response to Friday’s strike. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said Tehran will react with “harsh revenge” to the hit on the popular general, who was his personal friend.
US intelligence is conducting surveillance by various means to assess when the missiles could be ready to launch, the report said.
Meanwhile, another unnamed US official told CNN that American defense chiefs were holding intense discussions as they try to ascertain whether Iran plans to retaliate in the next few days, with “conflicting views” on when a major attack may come.
An assault was definitely expected “within weeks” at maximum, the official said.
Iran has vowed harsh retaliation for the death of Soleimani, the mastermind of its regional military strategy. He was killed early Friday near the Baghdad international airport along with senior Iraqi militants in an airstrike ordered by US President Donald Trump. The attack has caused regional tensions to soar and tested the US alliance with Iraq.
A senior Iranian commander on Saturday threatened that some 35 US targets in the Middle East, as well as Tel Aviv, were within reach of Tehran to avenge the killing of Soleimani.
“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there… vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since a long time ago,” said General Gholamali Abuhamzeh, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the southern province of Kerman, according to the Reuters news agency.
“Some 35 US targets in the region, as well as Tel Aviv, are within our reach,” he added.
Israel has reportedly raised its security alert at missions worldwide, and the IDF has heightened its alert, amid Iranian revenge threats.
Israel will convene its security cabinet on Sunday in the wake of Iranian threats to avenge Soleimani.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Saturday stressed the “need for deescalation.”
After meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels, Borrell tweeted: “Spoke w Iranian FM @JZarif about recent developments. Underlined need for de-escalation of tensions, to exercise restraint & avoid further escalation.”
The strike has raised fears of an all-out war, but it’s unclear how or when Iran might respond. Any retaliation was likely to come after three days of mourning declared in both Iran and Iraq. All eyes were on Iraq, where America and Iran have competed for influence since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Trump said he ordered the strike, a high-risk decision that was made without consulting Congress or US allies, to prevent a conflict. US officials say Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered American troops and officials, without providing evidence.
Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s regional policy of mobilizing militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State group. He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and American allies going back decades.
After the early Friday attack, the US-led coalition has scaled back operations and boosted “security and defensive measures” at bases hosting coalition forces in Iraq, a coalition official said on the condition of anonymity according to regulations. Meanwhile, the US has dispatched another 3,000 troops to neighboring Kuwait, the latest in a series of deployments in recent months as the standoff with Iran has worsened.
In a thinly veiled threat, one of the Iran-backed militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Bridages, called on Iraqi security forces to stay at least 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) away from US bases starting Sunday night.
“The leaders of the security forces should protect their fighters and not allow them to become human shields to the occupying Crusaders,” the warning statement said, in reference to the coalition bases. The group is founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi militia commander who was killed in the same strike.
Later Saturday evening, a series of rockets were launched and fell inside or near the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the US Embassy.
No one was injured by a Katyusha rocket that fell inside a square less than one kilometer from the embassy, according to an Iraqi security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Another rocket in Baghdad landed about 500 meters from As-Salam palace where the Iraqi President Barham Salih normally stays in Jadriya, a neighborhood adjacent to the Green Zone, the official said.
Another security official said three rockets fell outside an air base north of Baghdad were American contractors are normally present. The rockets landed outside the base in a farm area and there were no reports of damages, according to the official.
Also on Saturday, a spokesman for the Iraqi armed forces said the movement of coalition forces, including US troops, in the air and on the ground will be restricted, conditioned on receiving approval from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the commander in chief of the armed forces.
It was not immediately clear what the new restrictions would mean, given that coalition troops were already subject to limitations and had to be coordinated with the Joint Operation Command of top Iraqi military commanders.