WASHINGTON – Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at U.S. troops and coalition forces at two bases in Iraq on Tuesday, an apparent retaliation for a U.S. drone strike days earlier that killed one of Tehran’s most powerful officials, Qasem Soleimani.
Though the extent of the damage was not immediately clear, the attack represented a major escalation of tension between Tehran and Washington that had already been boiling over for months. Both President Donald Trump and Iranian officials have threatened further reprisals if either side attacks.
Trump announced on Twitter he would make a statement on the attack Wednesday.
“All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq,” Trump posted to Twitter late Tuesday night. “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”
There was no initial indication of casualties, according to a U.S. official speaking to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity and not authorized to speak publicly. Still, the official described the attack as “massive” and cautioned that the assessment was made in the predawn hours in Iraq on Wednesday.
It appears a hangar was damaged at the Ain Assad base, one of two struck, the official said. Troops stationed at that base did have advance warning of incoming missiles so they were able to scramble for cover, the official said. They’ve been practicing drills for some time.
“The early warning system worked,” the official said.
White House officials said Trump was briefed on the strike and lawmakers on Capitol Hill expressed alarm at the developments, which have moved the U.S. closer to open conflict with a longtime foe in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
“It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday.
“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region,” Hoffman added.
Pentagon officials were reviewing reports from Iraq and weighing a response, a senior U.S. defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity told USA TODAY. The official called initial reports fragmentary but said some damage appeared likely.
“The president has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.
‘An act of war’:Lawmakers react to Iran’s missile strike on US military bases
Ain Assad air base is located in western Iraq and it was used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces. Trump made a surprise visit there in late 2018 and delivered remarks about the fight against the Islamic State.
The Erbil base, which the Pentagon said was the site of another attack, is located in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they were alarmed but said they are still gathering information about the extent of the attack.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was gathered with Democrats discussing the impeachment proceedings against Trump and the House agenda when a staff member brought in a note informing her of the strike.
Pelosi paused, told members what had happened and said “we’ve got to pray,” according to Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who was present for the meeting.
“She’s a Catholic woman like me,” Dingell said. “We all care deeply about our military men and women that are serving this country.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal emerged Tuesday from a classified briefing from Department of Homeland Security officials on threats posed by Iran. The concerns raised in that briefing should be made public, he said.
“I found it pretty sobering,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
Iranian state TV reported that Tehran claimed credit for the attack and said it was a response to the killing ofSoleimani, which Trump ordered late last week. The strike, which occurred early Wednesday in Iraq, came hours after crowds of Iranians were seen publicly mourning Soleimani.
At a time when both Trump and Iranian officials have threatened reprisals, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard warned the U.S. and its allies against retaliating over the missile attack. The Guard issued the warning via a statement carried by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency.
“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 statement said.
Iran state media said little beyond confirming the operation and signaling that leaders there would de-escalate if there is no U.S. retaliation, and escalate if there is. It claimed 30 missiles were fired.
On social media, one Iranian official tweeted: “Get the hell out of our region.” Another posted a picture of the Islamic Republic’s flag with no caption, presumably a reference to Trump’s word-free tweet of the U.S. flag after the Soleimani operation.
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif framed the attack as a measure of “self-defense.”
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif tweeted late Tuesday.
Ain Assad air base is located in Iraq’s western Anbar province. It was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Iranian state TV said the operation’s name was “Martyr Soleimani.” It said the Guard’s aerospace division that controls Iran’s missile program launched the attack.
Earlier Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper cited “exquisite intelligence” that Soleimani was coordinating imminent attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East. The attacks, Esper said, were likely a matter of days, not weeks, from being launched.
Considered a foe of the U.S. since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the relationship between the two countries deteriorated after Trump withdrew from a multi-national agreement last year intended to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Trump argued the deal, negotiated in part by President Barack Obama, wasn’t aggressive enough.
In recent months Washington has accused Iran of being behind a series of attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September and of sabotaging and detaining allied oil tankers in the region in May and June.
Tensions erupted last month when an American contractor was killed and several U.S. military service members were wounded in a rocket attack on a military base near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. The attack was attributed to Kataeb Hezbollah, which the Pentagon said was related to Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The U.S. responded with a series of airstrikes in Iraq that killed some two dozen members of the militia. Trump then approved an airstrike Thursday at the Baghdad International Airport that killed Soleimani, the head of the Quds force.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, in the hours before the latest strike, leaders from around the world had called for lowering the temperature. French President Emmanuel Macron telephoned his Iranian counterpart earlier Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, to urge him to “refrain from any measure likely to exacerbate the ongoing escalation of tensions.”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London, and Christal Hayes and David Jackson in Washington, D.C.