Iran fires missiles at Iraqi bases with US personnel

What happened: Iran fired 15 ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US personnel early on Wednesday morning in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.

  • A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that 10 missiles struck the Ain Al Assad airbase west of Baghdad, one hit a US base in Erbil in northern Iraq and four failed to reach their targets. There are no reports of any US or coalition force casualties, but there might have been Iraqi deaths.
  • Military analysts say that videos of the attack indicate that the missiles used were precision-guided solid-propellant Fateh class missiles (Fateh 110, Fateh 313, Zolfaghar) with a warhead ranging between 250kg to 580kg.
  • US President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after the attack: “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! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!” He is expected to make a statement on Wednesday morning.
  • Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, said Tehran launched what he described as “proportionate measures” in self-defence on bases from which “cowardly armed attack[s] against our citizens & senior officials were launched”. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) issued a statement warning the US not to respond to the attack.
  • Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the attack and urged Iran “not to repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, and instead to pursue urgent de-escalation.” He said: “A war in the Middle East would only benefit Daesh and other terrorist groups.”
  • In a special debate yesterday in the UK Parliament, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he would not “rule out anything” when asked whether the UK would agree to military action in Iran. He added that the Government has taken “urgent measures” to protect British nationals and interests in the Gulf including the transfer of all non-essential personnel from Baghdad to Camp Taji, 17 miles north of the Iraqi capital that is the current base for around 400 soldiers of the Irish Guards.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit yesterday to Syria, where he met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The two leaders met in the Russian military headquarters in Damascus before taking a tour around the capital.

Context: Iran had already threatened to respond militarily to the killing of Soleimani, head of the IRGC Quds Force

  • The Ain al-Assad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein, and later housed US-led coalition troops to fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 US and coalition forces.
  • President Trump has increased the US military footprint in the region over the past year. The US is estimated to have between 50,000-80,000 troops at bases across the region, including in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
  • Iran’s attack came just hours after the burial of Soleimani in the city of Kerman, where the commander was born. The burial was delayed by several hours following the deaths of at least 50 people in a stampede at a funeral procession.
  • Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Commons yesterday that coalition bases in Iraq containing UK and US personnel, including in the central area in Baghdad, had been attacked 14 times, on one occasion with 42 rockets, since October 2019.

Looking ahead: The question now is how President Trump will react to the attack on US forces in Iraq. The strike had been anticipated and Washington may view it as a price worth paying for the death of Soleimani. Alternatively the US may decide that targeting US personnel will ballistic missiles requires a tough response in order to maintain deterrence. In that scenario there will be a further Iranian response that will extend and escalate the conflict.

  • The Iranian missile attack may just mark the start of Iran’s response to the killing of Soleimani. This was a direct attack that Iran has admitted it carried out. But there are likely to be a series of violent incidents instigated by Iranian allies against US personnel and interests in the months ahead that Iran will deny any role in.

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