Iran on Wednesday launched a missile attack on an Iraqi airbase where US forces are based, threatening “more crushing responses” if Washington carried out further strikes, Iranian state media said.
It said the missiles were in response to a US strike last week that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi top commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The Tehran regime had threatened to “set fire to what they [the Americans] love.” Indeed, Trump was on record as valuing the huge amounts the US had spent to upgrade and maintain the targeted Iraqi base al-Asad.
“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base,” the president said last February. “We might as well keep it.”
Tokyo stocks plunged Wednesday morning as investors took fright at the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.
The benchmark Nikkei 225 index dropped 2.44% or 576.26 points to 22,999.46 about 30 minutes after the opening bell, while the broader Topix index fell 2.20% or 37.90 points to 1,687.15.
Security sources said that nine rockets hit the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s west, the largest of the Iraqi military compounds where foreign troops are based.
The attack came in three waves just after midnight, the sources said.
Iran swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, with state TV saying it had launched “tens of missiles” on the base and promised “more crushing responses” if the US carried out further strikes.
The Pentagon said Iran had fired more than a dozen missiles against Ain al-Asad and another installation hosting US and coalition forces near Arbil.
It said bases hosting foreign troops had expected an attack and had been on “high alert” for days.
US President Donald Trump was “monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team,” according to the White House.
The attack came after pro-Tehran factions in Iraq had vowed to join forces to “respond” to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis last week.
Soleimani was seen as the “godfather” of Tehran’s proxy network across the region and Muhandis, one of his top advisors, was the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military network.
Many factions within the Hashed, which has been incorporated into the Iraqi state, have ties to Tehran.
On Tuesday, a hardline Hashed faction issued its fiercest threat yet to retaliate.
“The US Marines must immediately return to their dens to make their coffins,” said Akram al-Kaabi, head of the Harakat al-Nujaba group.
“The International Resistance Regiments have been formed in order to execute a harsh, deliberate response to the American terrorist forces,” Kaabi added.
His deputy had earlier called for an urgent meeting to unite anti-American forces across Iraq.
“We will wage a war against the American presence in all parts of the region that we can reach,” said Nasr al-Shammary.
US installations across Iraq had faced some 15 rocket attacks in recent months but none had been claimed.
As a result, the US-led coalition and NATO announced they were temporarily suspending their operations in Iraq.
President Donald Trump had sought on Tuesday to end confusion over the future of American troops in Iraq, saying they should stay, despite fury there over the US killing of a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
“At some point, we want to get out, but this isn’t the right point,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Regardless of US efforts to clarify the troops’ future following an Iraqi parliament call for their exit, regional tension and uncertainty increased.
In the Iranian city of Kerman, more than 50 people died in a stampede by a crowd attending the funeral of slain Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, Iranian media reported.
The hugely influential figure was killed in a US drone strike on Friday near Baghdad’s international airport and had been due to be buried in his home town when the crowd got out of control.
The tragedy added to the sense of volatility triggered by Soleimani’s killing, with crowds in Iran chanting “death to America” and Tehran and Washington exchanging warnings of war.
Trump, however, did walk back earlier threats to bomb Iranian cultural sites in the event of conflict – something that could be a war crime.
“If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” Trump said.
Foreign troops waver
At the Soleimani funeral, top Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami said Iran would “take revenge.”
If further US attacks occur, “we will set fire to what they love,” he said.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “we should expect” Iran to go through with threats.
Trump said, “we are totally prepared.”
“If Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly,” Trump said, calling Soleimani “a monster.”
On Sunday, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, the US president said: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive airbase that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump said.
Trump most likely was referring to the al-Asad base, which has hosted the president. In February he said of al-Asad “We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it.”
Fallout from Soleimani’s killing also piled up in Iraq, where Iran has growing influence.
Despite Washington’s assurances that the approximately 5,200 US troops will remain in Iraq, several allies started to leave, raising questions over the future of a US-led mission to help the Iraqis fight the jihadist Islamic State group.
Canada announced that some of its estimated 500 troops will withdraw to Kuwait. And NATO, which suspended its training mission in Iraq after the killing, said it also was temporarily “repositioning” some personnel to locations inside and outside Iraq.
Several other countries, including Germany and Romania, announced plans to move forces. France said it had no intention of withdrawing its troops from Iraq.
Italy also said that after a “frank and articulate” phone call between Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper that its approximately 1,000 soldiers in the country would stay.
US attempts to clarify
On Sunday the Iraqi parliament voted in favor of expelling US troops in response to Soleimani’s killing.
Then on Monday, a letter emerged from the head of Task Force-Iraq, US Brigadier General William Seely, that appeared to announce just such an exit.
Back in Washington, US officials scrambled to deny the idea, calling the letter a mistakenly released draft or, as Trump suggested, a fake.
“I don’t know anything about that letter,” Trump told reporters. “I understand it was an unsigned letter. I don’t know if that letter was a hoax, or was it unsigned or what.”
Iraq’s prime minister, however, insisted Tuesday that the letter had been taken seriously.
“It was an official letter written in such a manner,” Abdel Mahdi told a televised cabinet meeting.
“It’s not a piece of paper that fell off the printer or reached us by coincidence,” he said.
Attempting to draw a line under the issue, Esper said that “policy has not changed. We are not leaving Iraq.”
He also insisted that there was “no signed letter, to the best of my knowledge.”
Trump said he favored eventual withdrawal from Iraq but that under the wrong conditions it would mean a strategic gift to Iran.
“If we leave, that would mean that Iran would have a much bigger foothold, and the people of Iraq do not want to see Iran run the country. That I can tell you,” Trump told reporters.
“It’s the worst thing that could happen to Iraq.”
Crushed under crowd
An additional 212 people were injured in the Kerman stampede, Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA said, citing officials in the southeastern city.
Anxious Iranians gathered outside a city hospital to check the lists of victims or show doctors pictures of their missing relatives.
Inside, patient Ali Salaji, 28, recounted the crush as his mother tended to him.
“I could hardly breathe. I had a seizure, and my foot was crushed pretty bad under the weight of all that crowd,” he told AFP.
The streets of Kerman overflowed with mourners, while others took refuge on hillsides around the city, where the general was to be buried at the martyrs’ cemetery.
After the stampede, Iranian media stopped broadcasting live from the cemetery, with some outlets suggesting the burial might not take place before morning
– With Reporting by AFP