US troops in Iraq knew of Iranian attack 2.5 hours ahead of time – report

CNN visits al-Asad airbase, says Iraqis gave advance warning of attack; some forces evacuated, while others took shelter in bunkers well before first missiles slammed into site

US troops stationed at a base targeted last week in a devastating, but not deadly, Iranian missile attack had advance warning of the assault, buying them time to either leave or take shelter in bunkers before rockets rained down on their location, CNN reported.

In what marked the first time media were given access to the base since the attack, the cable station on Saturday reviewed impact sites and spoke with troops who were on the ground in the Al-Asad air base during the attack.

Iran fired over a dozen missiles as two bases in Iraq — Al-Asad and another base in the northern city of Irbil — housing US troops last Wednesday, in revenge for a US drone strike that killed senior Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani a few days earlier.

An Arab diplomatic source told CNN that the Iraqis had warned the US in advance of which bases would be hit after receiving the information from the Iranians. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi said the Iranians gave an official verbal message warning Iraq shortly before the attack started.

Many troops at Al-Asad were evacuated from the base some two and a half hours before the missile attack started, and those who remained hunkered down in shelters, CNN reported.

This satellite image provided on January 8, 2020, by Middlebury Institute of International Studies and Planet Labs Inc. shows the damage caused from an Iranian missile strike at the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq. (Planet Labs Inc./Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Beginning at just after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday there were four volleys of rockets that hit Al-Asad, some coming down directly on living quarters that had been evacuated due to the warnings.

CNN said little was left of the living quarters hit due to the blast damage and a fire that raged for hours afterwards. Footage from the site showed shattered buildings and large craters in the ground.

Although most troops were moved out of harm’s way, the information the US received indicated that there might be a ground assault on the base too. As a result, some soldiers remained deployed outside in the open, maintaining the perimeter as the explosions rocked the base.

US sources told CNN that Iran was “not that concerned” with preventing US casualties, and that if precautions had not been taken, the rockets “could potentially have caused significant US casualties.”

Lt-Col Staci Coleman, who remained in a shelter during the attack, described the experience as “extremely scary.”

“We knew something was happening but we didn’t know exactly what,” Coleman related. “As the time drew closer, we kind of felt we had an indication of what it might be but we still weren’t certain. We had advance warning there may be some rockets followed by a base incursion. So we had to keep our security forces out to make sure we were safe from that.”

Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qassem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020 (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Coleman said the pressure from the blasts as the missiles exploded on the ground was so strong they could see the bunker doors pushed inward and then sucked back out again with each impact.

The rockets continued to fall intermittently for the next two hours. At dawn officers emerged from the bunkers to review the damage.

According to the US there were no injuries in the attack. Iran has claimed, without offering evidence, that dozens of US troops were killed.

Iran for days had promised to respond forcefully to Soleimani’s killing, but its limited strike on two bases appeared to signal that it was also uninterested in a wider clash with the US.

Although some Iranian officials have threatened that more attacks will follow, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted after the barrage that the country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”

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