- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Iran fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in neighboring Iraq on Tuesday evening in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general, putting Washington and Tehran on a collision course that threatens to disrupt the entire Middle East, shake global markets and drag President Trump into a foreign conflict he has long sought to avoid.

Iranian state media and the Pentagon confirmed that at least one salvo of more than a dozen missiles was fired from inside Iran at the Ain Assad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province and a second base housing U.S. and allied forces in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. Vice President Mike Pence was briefing congressional leaders on the attack as Mr. Trump huddled at the White House with his top advisers, including Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Although there was no official report on casualties, The Associated Press, citing a U.S. official, said there were very few if any casualties. In a Tuesday evening tweet, in which he noted that casualty and damage assessments were being conducted, Mr. Trump said, “All is well!” and “So far, so good!”

“At approximately 5:30 p.m. on January 7, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel at Al-Assad and Irbil.”

Approximately 5,200 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq, but it was not immediately known how many were serving at the two targeted bases.

“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,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, noting that U.S. commanders already had moved to protect troops and assets in light of the events of recent days.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the command once headed by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, said in a statement that “the brave soldiers of IRGC’s aerospace unit have launched a successful attack with tens of ballistic missiles on Al Assad military base in the name of” their slain leader.

“We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted,” the IRGC statement said, according to the IRNA news agency.

The missiles were launched from Iranian soil, not by proxy forces in Iraq or other countries, which was seen as a particularly provocative move by Tehran. Iranian military officials, in comments to the Tasnim News Agency, warned that Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite allies in Lebanon, would fire rockets at Israel if the U.S. retaliates for the strikes in Iraq.

“We in no way consider the Zionist regime [of Israel] to be separated from the criminal U.S. regime in these crimes,” the IRGC statement said.

According to Ali Arouzi, the chief of NBC News’ Tehran bureau, citing state media, Iran warned that if there is any retaliation, it will destroy Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Haifa in Israel.

However, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif indicated that Iran’s response to Soleimani’s death is now over.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter,” he said in a post on Twitter. “We do not seek escalation.”

Days of warnings

The Iranian counterstrike capped a day when Mr. Trump and his top lieutenants stepped up their defense of the drone strike last week that killed Soleimani, even as tensions soared across the Middle East amid fears that the confrontation was spiraling out of control.

In the face of critics who argued that the Trump administration had dangerously fomented a war with Iran, Mr. Esper and Mr. Pompeo said the drone strike was justified because Soleimani was actively plotting attacks against American targets.

Mr. Esper said such attacks were just days away when Mr. Trump ordered the strike in Baghdad. Mr. Pompeo did not detail what intelligence U.S. officials had, but he stressed that the strike was “the right decision.”

Mr. Trump said Tuesday that “we saved a lot of lives by terminating [Soleimani’s] life.” Before the Iranian attack Tuesday night, administration officials were set to give lawmakers a classified briefing Wednesday about the decision to target Soleimani.

Even after the Iranian retaliatory strikes became public, some Democrats were faulting Mr. Trump for his handling of the crisis.

“We must ensure the safety of our servicemembers, including ending needless provocations from the administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said in a Twitter post. “America & [the] world cannot afford war.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that Mr. Trump’s “disregard for the lives of our U.S. servicemembers, civilians, and allies with his dangerous escalation of conflict with Iran has put our people in the direct line of fire.”

Fears soared in anticipation of the regime’s end of an official mourning period for Soleimani, whose funeral was delayed Tuesday after a stampede among thousands of mourners who jammed the streets around the commander’s coffin.

Online videos of the funeral procession in Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman showed people lying apparently lifeless, with their faces covered by clothing. At least 56 were killed and more than 200 injured.

The speeches continued Tuesday, and hard-line members of Iran’s parliament issued a letter calling on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to authorize a “tough retaliation.”

“We have no doubt that the level of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s reaction to the terrorist act of the criminal US government is a determining factor in creating a long-term balance at regional and international levels,” the letter said, according to the state-controlled Fars News Agency.

Hours before the attack, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed to carry out “tough and finishing” revenge to the killing of Soleimani, who led the IRGC’s Quds Force.

“We will take revenge,” Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami told the throng in Kerman on Tuesday, according to Fars. “We will take revenge that will be tough, strong, decisive and finishing and will make [the Americans] regret.”

Soaring tensions, plunging markets

Global markets plummeted as news of the Iranian retaliatory strikes filtered out. Dow futures were down more than 300 points within minutes, and the price of oil and gold jumped on international markets.

Tensions over fallout from the drone strike on Soleimani were particularly high in Iraq, which has a long border with Iran and is fearful of becoming ground zero for a war between the U.S. and Iran.

Mr. Esper offered a mixed message on the prospect, saying “the United States is not seeking a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one.”

“We are seeking a diplomatic solution, but first this will require Iran to de-escalate, it will require the regime to come to the table with the goal of preventing further bloodshed,” the defense secretary told reporters. “We are open to having this discussion with them, but we are just as prepared to deliver a forceful response to defend our interests.”

Questions swirled anew over the fate of some 5,000 American troops in Iraq, whose government has called on the U.S. to withdraw in the aftermath of the strike on Soleimani. The Iranian missile attack only exacerbates the dilemma facing the Trump administration.

Officials lamented Iran’s political influence and support for militant Shiite Muslim proxy groups in Iraq. The U.S. has kept a key contingent of troops in the country since 2014, when Baghdad invited them to train the Iraqi military and help fight the then-surging Sunni Muslim extremist Islamic State group.

Speaking in the Oval Office before the Iranian attack, Mr. Trump said now is not the right time for the U.S. troops to withdraw.

“At some point we want to get out, but this isn’t the right point,” he said. “It’s the worst thing that could happen to Iraq.”

The president also said the United States wants to be reimbursed for the cost of its heavily fortified embassy in Iraq and other costs incurred while fighting the Islamic State there.

It remains to be seen how such comments will play in Baghdad, where Iraqi leaders are frustrated over mixed messaging from U.S. military officials on the troops issue.

A letter from Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III, commander of the U.S. task force in Iraq, to his Iraqi counterpart dated Monday said the U.S.-led coalition would be “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.” Many news outlets initially reported that was formal notice that the U.S. was withdrawing forces from Iraqi soil.

Mr. Esper clarified that the U.S. had no plans for troops to leave. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the letter was “an honest mistake.”

Iraqi bases in doubt

Iraq’s outgoing prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, took issue with that account Tuesday. He said in a televised recording that Iraqi authorities thought the letter was legitimate when it was received and were blindsided when U.S. officials said it was sent in error.

“After four to five hours, it was said that the letter was wrong,” Mr. Abdul-Mahdi said. “The letter clearly indicates a withdrawal.

“In the future, what should we do if we get such a request? We should check if it is authentic or not? If we are late, then they will tell us that we are late.”

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite politician whose government has elements with close ties to Iran, more broadly asserted that the United States has no alternative but to pull its troops from Iraq to avoid further escalation with Tehran.

“We have no exit but this; otherwise, we are speeding toward confrontation,” he said. He added that with the Islamic State now largely defeated, the U.S. presence has been devolving into a mission to confront Iran.

Several U.S. allies who participated in a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State said Tuesday that they were pulling their troops from Iraq. Some said the onus is on Iranian leaders to de-escalate tensions in the region.

“Iran has been responsible for the escalation in the region, and therefore it is Iran’s responsibility to contribute to de-escalation,” German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told a gathering of German conservatives in Bavaria.

According to Reuters, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said Germany wants an international military alliance fighting the Islamic State. “Whether we can continue our work depends principally on the decision of the Iraqi government,” she said, adding that “talks on that are currently ongoing, and until then we’re reading tea leaves.”

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace offered similar remarks. He told lawmakers in London that “our commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty is unwavering, and we urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue our work countering this shared threat.” He was referring to the prospect of an Islamic State resurgence if the U.S.-led coalition of forces leaves Iraq.

Mr. Trump said the deadly drone strike last week was authorized in response to repeated attacks against U.S. service members and other Western targets by Iran-backed proxies overseen by Soleimani.

“It was retaliation,” Mr. Trump said. “He was a monster. And he’s no longer a monster. He’s dead.”

• Dave Boyer, Lauren Meier and David R. Sands contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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