Attacks raise fears of broader conflict in the Middle East after killing of Qassem Soleimani
Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US forces in Iraq in its first military retaliation for the killing of military commander Qassem Soleimani. The strikes on at least two bases where US troops are housed marked a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between Washington and Tehran and raised the spectre of a broader conflict in the Middle East.
The Pentagon said al-Assad base in Iraq’s Anbar province and a facility in Erbil, in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, were targeted. There were no details of casualties. “We are working on initial battle damage assessments,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “In recent days and in response to Iranian threats and actions, the department of defence has taken all appropriate measures to safeguard our personnel and partners.”
Donald Trump, who had vowed to respond to any Iranian retaliation, tweeted that he would make a statement on Wednesday. The US president wrote: “All is well! . . . We have the most powerful and well-equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said its forces fired “tens” of surface-to-surface missiles in an operation codenamed Martyr Soleimani. It warned “the great Satan and arrogant US that any aggressive act will be responded with more painful and more crushing retaliation”. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said Tehran launched what he described as “proportionate measures” in self-defence on a base from which “cowardly armed attack[s] against our citizens & senior officials were launched”.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he said on Twitter. Oil prices rose sharply following the attack before paring back some of the gains. In Asian trading on Wednesday, Brent crude, the international oil marker, spiked by 3.6 per cent before trading 1.4 per cent higher at $69.19 by early afternoon.
S&P 500 equity futures initially slumped 1.6 per cent before trading 0.3 per cent lower. Gold, considered a safe haven during times of turmoil, rose more than 2 per cent to $1,610 a troy ounce, its highest in almost seven years. At lunchtime in Asia, gold was 1 per cent higher at $1,590.63. The US Federal Aviation Administration said it was prohibiting US civil aviation operators from flying over Iraq, Iran, and the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
A spokesperson for the UK government, which has about 400 military personnel in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition against Isis, said Britain was “urgently working to establish the facts on the ground”.
Separately, a Ukrainian passenger plane with at least 170 people on board had crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran. Iran’s state news agency said all passengers and crew had died.
Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds force, responsible for the overseas operations of the Revolutionary Guard, had told state television on Monday that the Islamic regime would take revenge for the commander’s death by “uprooting the US from the region”.
Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad on Friday and Iraq, which hosts about 5,000 US troops and myriad Iranian-backed militias, was considered the likely flashpoint in a confrontation between Tehran and Washington. The US is estimated to have more than 50,000 troops in the Middle East at bases across the region, including in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
The Iranian statement on Wednesday warned US allies that if they have provided “bases to this terrorist army, and any land which in any way is used as the origin of hostile acts against the Islamic republic will be targeted, too. “We do not separate the Zionist regime [Israel] from the US in such crimes. We recommend that American people call for the withdrawal of American soldiers and not to let increasing hatred to cost more lives of their soldiers,” the statement added.
The Iranian strikes will heighten concerns over a broader conflagration. Tehran backs militant groups throughout the region, including Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement that fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, and militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Tehran has long used its proxies in asymmetrical warfare but after Soleimani’s death Iranians had warned that it might launch direct attacks.
The missiles were launched hours after a four-day funeral for Soleimani ended on Tuesday, drawing millions of mourners and vows of revenge from Iranian leaders. Mr Trump, who said he ordered the strike against Soleimani because the general was planning imminent attacks against US targets, warned Iran on Saturday that Washington had identified 52 targets, including cultural sites, that it would hit “very fast and very hard” if Tehran attacked American targets.
Mike Pence, the US vice-president, was briefed on Wednesday’s attacks and informed the congressional leadership. The crisis was triggered after Washington blamed Iran-backed militias in Iraq for firing a barrage of rockets at another base in Iraq hosting US troops that killed an American civilian contractor.
The US responded by launching air strikes on five sites associated with Kata’ib Hizbollah, one of the militant Iraqi factions, killing 25 fighters. Iraqi militiamen and their supporters then attacked the US embassy in Baghdad. Mr Trump blamed Iran and then ordered the strike on Soleimani.
Tehran and Washington have been locked in a stand-off since Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers and imposed swingeing sanctions that have devastated the Islamic republic’s economy.