Pence Says Iran Sought to Kill Americans in Strike, Contradicting Pentagon Assessment

Josh Wingrove

(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Mike Pence declaration that Iran’s missile attack on two U.S. bases in Iraq on Wednesday was intended to kill Americans contradicted initial assessments and contrasted with President Donald Trump’s more forgiving reaction.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that when the Iranians fired those missiles, they were intending to kill Americans,” Pence told Fox News on Thursday, adding in a subsequent interview with NBC that there was intelligence to support his claim. He dismissed suggestions that Iran targeted unpopulated areas of the two bases -- the Pentagon’s initial assessment, according to people familiar with it.

An Iranian military commander said earlier Thursday that the attack aimed to destroy U.S. facilities and equipment at the bases, rather than kill servicemen, and Pence’s remarks may have been intended to rebut him.

But the vice president offered a more ominous reaction to the attack than Trump. The president posted “all is well!” on Twitter immediately following the Iranian missile barrage and said later on Wednesday that Iran “appears to be standing down.” The contrasting U.S. assessments left unclear whether the Trump administration believes Tehran intended to escalate the conflict -- or intentionally chose to retaliate for the U.S. killing of General Qassem Soleimani in a way that saved face but caused little harm.

Asked about the contrast between Pence’s remarks and the Pentagon’s assessment, Pence’s spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in an e-mail that he “doesn’t respond to unnamed officials who are sharing their thoughts and refuse to go on the record with their personal feelings that rub contrary to the Vice President and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

She didn’t respond when asked if Pence intended to counter the Iranian remarks.

‘Not After Killing’

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Mark Milley, offered an assessment similar to Pence’s on Wednesday.

“I believe based on what I saw and what I know, is that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft, and to kill personnel,” he said on Wednesday. “That’s my own personal assessment. But the analytics is in the hands of professional intelligence analysts.”

Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at the two bases -- the sprawling Ayn al-Asad air base in western Iraq and a smaller base near the city of Erbil. Satellite imagery provided by the firm Planet Labs showed damaged aircraft hangers and other structures at al-Asad.

“We were not after killing. We were after hitting the enemy’s military apparatus,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying Thursday by the semi-official Fars news agency.

He said that Iran could have killed 500 Americans in its initial attack and thousands more within 48 hours.

Warned of Attack

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Twitter that Iran “went to great lengths to avoid doing anything to harm Americans” in its initial retaliation. But he also said Iran could yet engage in “masked” reprisals or attacks on U.S. allies.

Iraq’s government said it had been forewarned about the attack. A U.S. official said the American military had indications well before the launch that missiles were to be fired, allowing time to move about 1,000 personnel at al-Asad into hardened shelters and to take other precautions.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state television that the Islamic Republic’s response was a “slap in the face” to the Americans. He demanded an end to the U.S. presence in the Mideast, a sign that Tehran’s ultimate goal remains to push the American military out of Iraq. The Soleimani killing has fueled Iraqi calls for a U.S. withdrawal.

Further complicating the U.S. response, several lawmakers publicly belittled Iran’s retaliation. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, told reporters that the missile attack was “feckless and anemic.”

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