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Iran’s supreme leader said Wednesday morning that his country had dealt a “slap in the face” to the U.S. with missile strikes against two military bases in Iraq but warned that the attack was “not sufficient” response to the assassination of one of its most powerful generals.
Ayatollah Khamenei, in an address broadcast live on state television from the holy city of Qom, said incremental military actions against the United States alone were not enough and ultimately Tehran wanted U.S. military removed from the region entirely.
“What matters is that the presence of America, which is a source of corruption in this region, should come to an end,” he said.
Khamenei’s comments came hours after Iran had launched more than a dozen missiles at two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops as well as other coalition forces. The Pentagon has yet to say what damage was caused by the missile strikes, but Iraqi and coalition partners have reported there were no casualties.
The attack could potentially mark a major escalation between the two longtime enemies, but within minutes of the missiles being launched, President Donald Trump appeared to deescalate the situation.
“All is well” Trump tweeted, adding “so far, so good” and that he would make a full statement on Wednesday morning.
Hours later, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, tweeted that Tehran had “concluded” what it deemed “proportionate measures” in response to the killing of General Qassem Soleimani.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif added.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a member, warned the U.S. and its allies not to respond to the attack.
“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 group said in a statement carried by Iran’s state-backed IRNA news agency.
Just before 2 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning (7.30 p.m. ET Tuesday) missiles were launched from Iran targeting the Ain al-asad air base, west of Baghdad, and the Irbil air base in northern Iraq.
The U.S. said that 15 missiles were launched against air bases in Iraq, while Iraqi authorities said that 22 missiles were fired during a 30-minute window on Wednesday morning.
A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that 10 missiles struck the Ain as-asad air base while just one hit Irbil. Four other missiles failed to reach their targets. Two Iraqi security officials told AP that at least one of the missiles appeared to have struck a plane at the Ain al-asad base, starting a fire.
Hayder Hamzoz of the Iraqi Network for Social Media posted pictures showing one of the missiles that missed their target, landing in the village of Hitan, 25 miles from the Ain al-Asad airbase.
Military analysts, citing videos purporting to show the launches, say the missiles used were precision-guided solid-propellant Fateh class missiles with warheads ranging between 250kg to 580kg.
The Ain al-asad air base, which currently houses around 1,500 U.S. and coalition troops, was first used by American forces after the 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein. Later it housed U.S.-led coalition troops to fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The attack came just hours after Soleimani was buried in the city of Kerman, where he was born. The burial was delayed by several hours following the deaths of 56 people in a stampede at a funeral procession.
Iran said the missile launches were timed to mirror the time Soleimani was killed last Friday, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport.
The IRGC initially claimed the attack had caused huge damage. In a statement to Iranian TV, the group said 15 missiles hit 20 critical points killing 80 soldiers, wounding 200 more and destroying large quantities of military equipment, including helicopters.
Despite the claim being shared widely by Iranian media, no evidence was provided to back up these claims and all other reports indicated minimal damage and no casualties.
Iraqi security officials have said there were no casualties at Iraqi bases, and Britain, Sweden, Poland, Australia, and Denmark, whose troops are stationed in Iraq alongside American forces, also said none of their service members had been killed.
While the Pentagon has yet to give an official assessment of the damage caused by the attack, a U.S. military official and a senior administration official told CNN that the initial assessment is that the Iranian missiles hit areas of the al-Asad base not populated by Americans.
Analysts suggest that the failure to hit areas housing U.S. troops was not an error. “Their capabilities are much better than tonight’s two launches indicate,” former Delta Force commander Jerry Boykin told Fox News. “I think it is entirely feasible that they had no intention of harming Americans, I think this is propaganda.”
“A critical juncture”
Iraq’s prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said that Iran had given his government a warning that an attack was imminent, but on Wednesday morning called on all sides to show restraint.
“We have called, and we call on all, to exercise restraint, adhere to international covenants, respect the Iraqi state and the decisions of its government, and help it to contain and overcome this serious crisis threatening it, the region, and the world with a devastating, comprehensive war.”
This sentiment was echoed by U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who condemned the attack and urged Iran “not to repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, and instead to pursue urgent de-escalation.” He added: “A war in the Middle East would only benefit Daesh and other terrorist groups.”
However, in the U.S., several prominent Republican lawmakers sought to inflame the situation.
Speaking on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News moments after the attack took place, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called the attack an “act of war” adding: “You continue this crap you're going to wake up one day out of the oil business.”
On the same show, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) praised Trump's judgment, saying Trump will "assess the damage and he'll respond accordingly.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted that Iran “is now openly calling for Americans to turn on each other” adding: "The time will come to debate U.S. policy. Tonight American & allied troops have come under direct attack by a nation-state and Americans must come together to support and protect them and respond appropriately.”
Democrats generally stuck a more muted tone, with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) calling for restraint from Tehran and the use of diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis.
"We are at a critical juncture where we still have an opportunity to be responsible and pursue diplomatic channels; our nation has friends and allies who will stand with us,” Menendez said in a statement.
Cover: In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of residents of the city of Qom, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Ayatollah Khamenei said "we slapped them (Americans) on the face last night" with a missile strike "but military action is not enough." He spoke hours after the strike at military bases in Iraq used by U.S. forces. The strike was in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iran's top military commander in Baghdad. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)