Rockets strike Iraqi military base housing U.S. troops

At least 10 missiles hit a military airbase overnight in Iraq which houses roughly 2,000 U.S.-led coalition troops. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes at a time when tensions are growing between the U.S. and Iran. CBS News' Skyler Henry reports on the attack, and retired Army major and military analyst Mike Lyons joined CBSN to discuss how the Biden administration might respond.

Video Transcript

- At least 10 missiles hit a military air base overnight in Iraq. The attack targeted the Al Asad Air Base in the Western part of the country. That base houses roughly 2000 US-led coalition troops. An American contractor died after suffering a heart attack during the shelling. The Pentagon says no additional service members were injured. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it comes at a time when tensions are escalating between the US and Iran. CBS News' Skyler Henry has more.

SKYLER HENRY: Video on social media shows the wreckage of what Iraqi forces believe was the launch pad to carry out Wednesday's rocket attack on a military base used by American forces in Iraq. The attack on Al Asad Air Base is the first since the US struck Iran-backed militia targets in Syria last week.

The strike was authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq and to ongoing threats to those personnel.

SKYLER HENRY: Wednesday's attack targeted the same base that Iran struck in January of last year, injuring dozens of US servicemen in what was the largest ever ballistic missile attack against Americans. That attack was in retaliation for the US directed drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. The Pentagon says the base's missile defensive systems engaged during the attack, and there are no reports of any injuries to US service members. However, one American civilian contractor died of a heart attack. Wednesday's rocket strike comes two days ahead of Pope Francis's trip to Iraq, where he's expected to not only meet with Christians who were persecuted during the Islamic State insurgency, but also try to boost ties with the Shiite Muslim world. Skyler Henry, CBS News, the White House.

- For more on this, we are joined by retired Army Major and military analyst, Mike Lyons. Major Lyons, thank you so much for being with us. So no one has claimed responsibility, but who do we believe carried out the attacks on the Al Asad Air Base this morning.

MAJ. MIKE LYONS: We believe the attacks were taking place by Iraqi militia units that are currently stationed inside of Syria on the Syrian border. It's about 100 miles or so to the Al Asad Air Base there, and they conduct what's called a RAID. And what they do is they cross the border they-- they transpose across a very austere desert, and they're able to move under stealth and get close enough where they fire only rockets, which are fundamentally harassing and interdiction type fires. They're not necessarily designed to create a lot of destruction, but they're designed to cause a lot of terror.

But we believe that these Iraqi militia groups that are supported by the Iranians, where they get their funding from. And then once they're done they-- they find their way back across the Syrian border.

- So that's the connection between these Iraqi militia groups and Iran. There's a funding link, is that correct?

MAJ. MIKE LYONS: Right they're funded, they get intel from them. They eat food, all of the things that allow them to sustain. And what they do is they escape back across that very safe Syrian border knowing full well that they can melt back into the society there. And again, it's all about geography because this Assad bases is fundamentally well-protected. It's in the middle of nowhere, so you should be able to see the enemy coming from a long way. Unlike other attacks that have come from greater distances from Iran, for example, in this case, this one was a raid. So that the-- the base commander looks like he's going to have to improve his capability to secure that base well outside of let's say a five to six mile area to make sure that none of these kinds of vehicles get inside it again, where they become subject to this kind of attack.

- And last week President Biden's administration, as you know, launched its first attack since he took office. The US struck an Iran-aligned militia target on the border of Iraq and Syria, this militia group that you are describing. The missile strike was expected to be a one-and-done, sort of, in retaliation for the Iranian-made rockets that were fired at a base housing American troops in Iraq. So what does this latest aggression mean for the escalating tensions between the US and Iran, and do you expect this could be the beginning of a tit-for-tat between the two countries?

MAJ. MIKE LYONS: Well, if we expected that to be a deterrence it's proven not to be because the enemy gets a vote as to what they'll be deterred by. And I was surprised when I saw such a small attack that goes back there. And it just shows we don't have a strategic vision or deterrence in the region. The fact that we were susceptible to the kind of attack we saw this morning just proves that out.

We attack inside of the Syrian border, Iraqi citizens who are fundamentally aligned with Iran. Again, the politics of it are all very confusing. So again, I think that we're going to have to rethink what our deterrents is going to be in the region. What is going to really deter Iran from funding these groups, in order to stop making these kinds of attacks. I think first we're going to have to harden our own bases itself to make sure that we're not susceptible to them.

But-- but if we're going to respond we can't respond just like this. These small little pinpoint attack that we saw last week. What the Israelis do, their deterrence is very simple. You strike us one time, we strike you 10 times back. There's going to have to be some other way in order for the Iranians to get the message to stop attacking US forces there.

- So you're suggesting a more escalated response then. I mean, you had several suggestions. Number one, to-- to harden the defense of those areas, and to sort of figure out a better strategy. But do you think part of that strategy needs to be a stronger military response?

MAJ. MIKE LYONS: Well, I think again, firstly, we have to defend and make sure that we're going to-- the soldiers and sailors, airmen that there are going to feel safe is the first and foremost thing. And then if we're going to go on the offensive, I think it's going to have to be more expansive than just one strike in one location along the border there. Perhaps using our technology with drone technology, Air Force technology in order to take out multiple targets that could possibly exist there, not just the one that we went after. I think that is going to be the critical piece to ensuring that, maybe, that there is some level of deterrence that we can do there. As for troops, we don't have a lot of ground troops there. They're all out. We can't do anything on the ground there. This is all going to have to come from the air.

- Yeah, I was going to-- that's what I was going to ask you. There was a huge diminishment of the number of troops recently, especially under the Trump administration, right? So how many boots do we actually have on the ground there to begin with, and is this also about the Iraqi-led troops that the US is helping, right? These are also attacks against the Iraqis, correct?

MAJ. MIKE LYONS: It is, and we don't have enough troops on the ground to influence any kind of battle there. We would have to send tens of thousands, really, if we thought that we were going to go after some of these militia groups who number us probably five or six-to-one. But that decision was made a long time ago. In fact, that was made under the Obama administration, when we pulled most of the US troops out of Iraq. You saw the Trump administration had about 5,000 and they tried to pull another 2,500 out. So there's not enough there on the ground. We also saw that Trump wanted them out of Syria, but it looks like that they all didn't come out of there. That's where we claim that we still have troops there doing underground missions fighting ISIS. But again, nothing to the point that we could extract any kind of potential victory from. Some of those militia groups are well-armed and have got tremendous amount of resources.

- Well it sounds like the US needs, at the very least, a recalibration of its strategy in that area. Major Mike Lyons, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your insight.

MAJ. MIKE LYONS: Thanks for having me.