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Iran has launched missile strikes aimed at US troops in Iraq in what it said was retaliation for the killing last week of the top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani.
The Pentagon confirmed that al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province, and Erbil base in northern Iraq, which both host a US contingent, had been hit by a salvo of more than a dozen missiles launched from Iran.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Suleimani was a member, issued a statement saying: “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 martyr General Qassem Suleimani.”
Iranian news sites showed video footage of missiles being launched into the night sky.
The White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said: “We are aware of the reports of attacks on US facilities in Iraq. The president has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team.”
“At approximately 5.30pm [Washington time, 1.30am in Iraq] on January 7, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against US military and coalition forces in Iraq,” a Pentagon statement said. “It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting US military and coalition personnel at Al Asad and [Erbil].”
Following the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Suleimani's deputy, Esmail Qaani, as the new commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force.
Little is known about his role in the Quds, a special operations force responsible for projecting Iranian military power overseas.
Like Suleimani, the 62-year-old from Mashhad joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a young man in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
He worked for IRGC counterintelligence before being appointed as Suleimani’s second-in-command in 1997.
The pair are said to have been close friends. Both veterans of the brutal 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iranian media quoted Qaani as saying their bond came from being “children of war”.
Comments from an IRGC political deputy this week suggested the division of labour between the two meant while Suleimani focused on Quds operations in the Middle East in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Qaani handled more bureaucratic affairs as well as relationship building with groups in Africa and Afghanistan.
He was sanctioned by the US over funding international Quds Force activity and proxy forces in 2012.
While Qaani is believed to be weaker and less charismatic than his predecessor, he has already echoed Khamenei in promising revenge for Sulemani’s death.
Quds Force operations are likely to continue unchanged, as the group’s structure means it can rely on its institutional power rather than individual leaders. Bethan McKernan
The statement said the bases had been on high alert and that all “appropriate measures” had been taken to safeguard US troops and partners, and that the Pentagon was still working on “initial battle damage assessments”.
“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend US personnel, partners, and allies in the region.
“Due to the dynamic nature of the situation, we will continue to provide updates as they become available.”
The al-Asad base has previously been a target of an Iranian-backed Shia militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, whose attacks on US and coalition troops triggered tit-for-tat strikes that culminated in the drone strike
Earlier in the day, the secretary of Iran’s national security council, Ali Shamkhani, said 13 “revenge scenarios” were being considered in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, and that even the most limited options would be a “historic nightmare” for the US.
Ali Shamkhani told the Tasnim news agency: “The 27 US bases that are closest to Iran’s border are already on high alert; they know that the response is likely to include medium-range & long-range missiles.”
Trump responded to Iranian threats in remarks to the press at the White House “We’re totally prepared. And likewise, we’re prepared to attack if we have to,” he said.
But he appeared to draw back from his earlier threats to target Iranian cultural sites, a potential war crime.
“If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he said, but he added: “They kill our people, they blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I’m OK with it … I will say this, if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly.”
Trump said his long-term intention was withdraw the 5,200 US troops currently in Iraq, but not right away as the Iraqi government and parliament have demanded.
“I think we’ve done a fantastic job but eventually, we want to be able to let Iraq run its own affairs,” he said. “We want to get out. But this isn’t the right point.”
When the US did leave, the president insisted, Iraq would have to reimburse Washington for the infrastructure investments Washington has made over a nearly 17-year presence.
US allies have already begun leaving Baghdad, which was buzzing as night fell with helicopters flying in and out of the city’s fortified diplomatic district, known as the Green Zone. Canada, which currently leads the Nato training mission, said it was pulling out some of its 500 troops, and Germany said its presence in Iraq would be “temporarily thinned out”. Most of the Nato troops withdrawing were reported to be heading for Kuwait.
The US-led coalition to counter Isis is also repositioning its forces to lessen their vulnerability to attack. Britain’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said that non-essential personnel were being moved from Baghdad to Taji, about 19 miles (30km) to the north.
The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, earlier insisted the Iranian response to US state terrorism would be proportionate, and not conducted by surrogate forces.
“This is an act of aggression against Iran, and it amounts to an armed attack against Iran, and we will respond. But we will respond proportionately – not disproportionately … We are not lawless like President Trump,” Zarif said, adding that the attack would occur at the time of Iran’s choosing.
“Unlike the United States, we do not take cowardly terrorist acts,” he said. “When we do it, we will declare it.”
The US defense secretary, Mark Esper, said the US would prefer a diplomatic solution.
“We’re prepared for the worst. We hope that cooler heads in Tehran will prevail and de-escalate the situation,” Esper told CNN. “We are not looking to start a war with Iran but we are prepared to finish one … What we would like to see is the situation de-escalated and for Tehran to sit down with us and begin a discussion about a better way ahead.”
In a further sign that the Trump administration was anxious to find a way of defusing the brewing conflict, Bloomberg News reported that Pompeo sent a cable to all US embassies on Tuesday ordering diplomats not to meet Iranian opposition groups without permission, explaining that it could jeopardise diplomacy with Iran’s government.
The Trump administration did little to clarify the confusion that arose on Monday over its intentions in Iraq. Pentagon officials had said that a letter sent to the Iraqi government from the US taskforce commander in Iraq, announcing a troop departure, had been a draft released by mistake.
Iraq’s acting prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, however, insisted that the letter had been signed and that it had initially been sent back to the US commander over a translation query, and then it had been redelivered with a corrected translation.
“They said it’s a draft. OK, it’s a draft. But we received it. As a state, how are we supposed to act? We should get a second letter to clarify so we can clarify to our people too,” Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November but has stayed on in a caretaker role, said, according to Agence France-Presse. “If I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me, how are we supposed to proceed?”
In a prerecorded television address he insisted the US would have to leave.
“We have no exit but this, otherwise we are speeding toward confrontation,” Abdul Mahdi said, adding that Iraq would have to take a “historic decision” to implement the expulsion. “Otherwise we will not be taken seriously,” he added.