Iran fired missiles Wednesday at Iraqi bases housing the US military, officials in Washington and Tehran said, in the first action of the Islamic republic’s promised revenge for the US killing of a top Iranian general.
Launched from Iranian territory and by Iranian forces not a proxy, the attack marked a new turn in the intensifying confrontation between the United States and Iran and sent world oil prices soaring.
There was no immediate suggestion of any link to the missile strikes but a Ukrainian airliner crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran early Wednesday with the loss of all 176 people on board.
The Pentagon said “Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against US military and coalition forces in Iraq”.
“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 Ain al-Asad and Arbil, it said.
Iran’s foreign minister appeared to suggest that the missile strikes were over for now.
But the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state, said it was a “slap in the face” for the United States and revenge was yet to come.
There was no immediate confirmation of any casualties. The Pentagon said the facilities had been on “high alert” after days of steadily mounting tension and exchanges of threats of war.
The Iraqi military said it sustained no casualties in 22 missile strikes on bases housing US troops.
“Between 1:45 am and 2:15 am (2245 GMT and 2315 GMT) Iraq was hit by 22 missiles, 17 on the Ain al-Asad air base and … five on the city of Arbil,” the Iraqi military command said.
“There were no victims among the Iraqi forces.”
France too said it sustained no casualties in the strikes on bases housing troops of a US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State jihadist group.
But British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab voiced concern about “reports of casualties” in a statement condemning the strikes.
“We condemn this attack on Iraqi military bases hosting coalition — including British — forces,” Raab said.
“We are concerned by reports of casualties and use of ballistic missiles.”
– ‘Slap in the face’ –
Trump, who visited al-Asad with First Lady Melania Trump in December 2018, his first trip to US troops deployed in a war zone, said initial casualty assessments indicated “all is well.”
The Norwegian military said coalition troops on the ground were warned in advance through intelligence channels of an imminent attack.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps said that the Ain al-Asad base was hit with dozens of missiles, in response to Friday’s killing in a US drone strike of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, one of the most important figures in the country’s government.
It warned any US counter-attack would be met with an even “more crushing response” and threatening to strike Israel and America’s “allied governments.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to inflict a “resounding blow” if Iran attacked.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a “slap in the face” had been delivered to the United States, but said revenge had yet to be exacted.
“An important incident has happened. The question of revenge is another issue,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
“Military actions in this form are not sufficient for that issue.
“What is important is that America’s corrupt presence must come to an end in this region.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had seemed to indicate that the missile strikes were over for now.
“Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence” targeting a base from which a “cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials” was launched, he said on Twitter.
The brazenness of the strike was highly unusual for Iran, which has tended to disguise attacks on US interests or troops through the use of proxy Shiite forces. This time, conventional, rather than guerrilla-style weapons were used and responsibility was rapidly claimed.
“It is a major escalation. Ballistic missiles openly launched from Iran onto American targets is a new phase,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias.
Oil prices immediately jumped on the news, with the benchmark WTI spiking more than 4.5 percent to $65.54 a barrel before receding slightly.
– Major escalation –
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 went down just outside Tehran after taking off bound for Kiev, Iranian state media reported.
There was no immediate suggestion of any link with the Iranian missile strikes but carriers including Air France and Lufthansa announced they were suspending flying though Iranian and Iraqi airspace as a precaution.
The crash was likely to have been caused by “technical difficulties”, Ali Khashani, spokesman for Imam Khomeini International Airport told Iran’s Press TV.
In the US, the aviation regulator banned civil flights over Iraq, Iran and the Gulf, citing the potential for “misidentification” of aircraft.
The slide into open confrontation followed days of sabre rattling between Washington and Tehran, coupled with growing confusion over the future of US troops in Iraq, where many are outraged at the drone strike.
At Soleimani’s funeral in the Iranian city of Kerman, tragedy was added to the geopolitical tensions, when 56 people died and 213 were injured in a stampede as the vast crowd of mourners got out of control, local media reported.
Hours before Iran struck, Trump tried to end confusion over his plans for the approximately US 5,200 troops in Iraq, saying they should stay despite calls by the Iraqi parliament for their expulsion.
“At some point, we want to get out, but this isn’t the right point,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Despite Washington’s assurances, several allies started to leave, raising questions over the future of the US-led mission to help Iraqis fight jihadists.
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