Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing American military personnel on Tuesday, threatening to embroil the United States in a new war in the Middle East.
The strikes followed Iranian threats of retaliation for the U.S. killing last week in Baghdad of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, a major military figure in Iran who the Trump administration said was planning “imminent” terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomats and soldiers in the region.
President Trump has repeatedly warned that the United States will respond to any Iranian action and that Iranian targets had already been selected. Before the attacks on Tuesday, he again threatened severe consequences “if Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing.”
The president, meeting late Tuesday night with his senior national security advisers at the White House, issued his initial response on Twitter and struck a less bellicose tone. He suggested but stopped short of saying that there were no initial reports of U.S. casualties.
“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!” Trump wrote. “We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”
Political responses across Washington were a mixture of warnings that Tehran had gravely miscalculated U.S. resolve and trepidation that the situation could quickly escalate into a major conflagration.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among several congressional leaders notified of the Iranian action in telephone calls from Vice President Pence, said on Twitter, “We must ensure the safety of our servicemembers, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war.”
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said in a statement that it was clear the missiles, which struck the vast al-Asad air base in western Iraq and a base at Irbil, in the country’s Kurdistan region, had been launched from Iran. “We are working on initial battle damage assessments,” Hoffman said.
Both bases were already on high alert, he said. “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 said.
About 5,000 U.S. troops are based in Iraq, and military officials have sent close to 10,000 additional forces to the region in recent days amid the rising tensions with Iran.
The strikes, which took place near dawn in Iraq, were initially announced by Iranian media, which called them “the first step . . . in revenge” for the killing of Soleimani on Friday by a U.S. airstrike shortly after he arrived at the Baghdad airport.
In Iran, where the attacks were launched in the small hours of the morning, state-controlled media said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had issued a statement saying “Operation Martyr Soleimani” had begun, to avenge Soleimani’s killing.
The Iranian strikes followed a stampede at the funeral for the general that left dozens dead and delayed the procession for several hours before he was buried in his home city of Kerman.
An IRGC statement broadcast on state television warned that any further American action would bring “a painful response,” according to a translation by the Site Intelligence Group. It also threatened other countries housing U.S. bases, saying that they, too, would be hit with “revenge” operations if any U.S. strikes were launched from them.
In a message to the American people, it urged that they pressure the administration to withdraw U.S. troops from the region to “prevent further casualties.”
In a statement on Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said 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. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Trump visited al-Asad in late 2018. On Sunday, he rejected Iraqi calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by saying there would be no departure until Baghdad repaid Washington for the facility, which he said had cost “billions of dollars to build.”
The State Department said that Secretary Mike Pompeo had telephoned Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to update him on the strikes, including in Irbil. The Kurdish region has been considered a relatively safe part of Iraq, and Germany had announced Tuesday that it had evacuated several dozen of its troops — part of a NATO mission in Iraq — from Baghdad and other areas to Irbil.
The Iranian attacks came at the end of yet another high-tension day as the U.S.-Iranian crisis has quickly escalated over the past several weeks and months.
But the roots of the conflict reach back to 2018, when Trump withdrew the United States from an international nuclear deal with Iran, which the Obama administration brokered, calling the pact poorly negotiated.
Instead, Trump opted for a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, which included the reapplication of harsh sanctions. Administration officials said the measures were designed to bring Iran to the table for a new nuclear deal and curb broader malign behavior by Tehran in the Middle East, including its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran, in response, began lashing out last year, seizing and attacking tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The Trump administration attributed to Iran a major attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations in the fall that briefly led to a 50 percent reduction in the kingdom’s oil production.
In late December, Iranian-allied militias in Iraq launched rockets at an Iraqi base, killing an American contractor and wounding several service members. The United States responded with airstrikes against militia bases, killing several dozen fighters.
That was followed by an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and, on Friday, the U.S. drone attack that killed Soleimani, who had just arrived in the Iraqi capital for meetings with officials in Baghdad.
The administration defended the killing of Soleimani on grounds that the Iranian general was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. service members killed by Iranian proxy militias during the Iraq War.
Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper have also said the U.S. military was acting on intelligence showing that Soleimani was making plans for additional attacks against Americans.
But lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have questioned the imminence of those plans and said the administration had provided no firm intelligence indicating a grave threat.
Senior officials are due to brief Congress Wednesday morning in a closed session to present the evidence.
Some Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), appeared to urge Trump to retaliate against Iran on Tuesday night.
“The Iranian regime has made a grave miscalculation by launching these attacks,” Cheney said in a tweet. She added: “I stand with President Trump, who has been clear that the United States will not tolerate such action against our forces.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, called the Iranian strike “an act of war, by any reasonable definition.” Trump, he said, “has all the authority he needs . . . to respond.”
Democrats, however, faulted Trump for escalating the situation. Speaking to a group of supporters outside Philadelphia, presidential candidate Joe Biden said that “the chaos that’s ensuing” in Iraq and Iran “was predictable.” Some of the things Trump has said and done in recent days “have been close to ludicrous,” he said. “I just pray to God as he goes through what’s happening, as we speak, that he’s listening to his military commanders for the first time, because so far that has not been the case.”
In using ballistic missiles, Iran relied on what the Defense Department considers one of its core capabilities. In a briefing held in November, a senior analyst focused on Iran told reporters at the Pentagon that the missiles constituted a primary component of Tehran’s strategic deterrent.
“Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability to dissuade its adversaries from attacking Iran,” said the official, Christian Saunders. “Iran also has the largest missile force in the Middle East, with substantial inventory of close-range ballistic missiles, short-range ballistic missiles and medium-range ballistic missiles that can strike targets throughout the region as far as 2,000 kilometers away.”
The Pentagon assessed that Iran will deploy an increasing number of “more accurate and lethal ballistic missiles” and continue to improve its existing missile inventory while fielding new land-attack cruise missiles.