Iran attacks bases housing US troops

By James Griffiths, Veronica Rocha, Meg Wagner, Mike Hayes and Ivana Kottasová, CNN

Updated 8:20 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020
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2:43 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020

Iran's strikes seem intended to avoid US deaths -- here's why that might be the case

Analysis from CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in Beirut, Lebanon

Iran's missile strikes against bases in Iraq housing US troops was not a response designed to kill the most Americans possible.

Iran will have known that in the early hours of the morning, US troops are normally asleep and the chances of inflicting casualties are lower.

Iran will also have known the US has a strong air defense that would likely have been on high alert. Tehran should have a grasp of how well its missiles would fare against such technology.

Iran strikes Iraqi bases housing US troops.
Iran strikes Iraqi bases housing US troops. Map: CNN

The missile attacks don't make sense if Tehran's goal was to really hurt US troops in large numbers -- like some had been pledging to do. They do make sense however as the execution of Supreme Leader Khamenei's order to strike back openly against US military targets in response to the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Khamenei's instruction was confusing when first reported, as the US is bound to prevail in a straight military-to-military conflict. Was the Supreme Leader ordering an empty show of force?

The dust is still settling, and even at the best of times Iran's motivations can be opaque, but there are three possible explanations for the action.

  • First, that Khamenei is out of touch with what his military can achieve and overestimated the effectiveness of the strikes, which then failed. This would be surprising given his reported involvement in and knowledge of Iranian military affairs.
  • Second, that moderation won out, and this largely empty signal -- hitting military targets in the dead of night with a small number of missiles -- provides the off-ramp both sides might ultimately want. This would be logical, given neither Tehran nor Washington have much to gain from a prolonged fight.
  • Third, this might be a bid by Iran to put the US into a false sense of security -- that Iran is militarily weak and has done its worse -- while an asymmetrical and nastier response is brewed. That would require a lot of strategic acumen from a government split between hardline and moderate wings, and means Tehran was relatively assured no Americans would be hurt in this missile attack.

If the attacks in Iraq are indeed the full scope of Iran's response, they carry with them another risk: that the Trump administration think their ramshackle performance over the last week has paid off, and Iran has been vanquished. This would risk further irrational action from Washington, perhaps not just against Iran but also other enemies. It also makes Iran look weak, which may embolden Tehran's other regional adversaries.

Iran's response to the killing of Soleimani was always going to be difficult to predict. But -- if the strikes truly are the entirety of Tehran's revenge -- few would have anticipated something so swift and so openly military-to-military.

12:53 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020

US troops were patrolling outside their bases after attack on al-Assad, military official says

From CNN's Ingrid Formanek in Baghdad

US troops were actively patrolling outside their bases with Iraqi partners in the hours after Iran targeted two military bases that house US troops in Iraq, according to a military official who did not want to be named.

Drones and attack helicopters were flying around bases housing US troops, the official said.

12:26 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020

New Zealand calls for restraint following airstrikes

From CNN's Anna Kam

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister and acting-Prime Minister Winston Peters called for "restraint and de-escalation, and for diplomacy to take over" in a statement to the media following the attacks.

"The government is working actively with our partners through military and diplomatic channels, and we continue to keep the security situation under close review, including implications for our personnel," Peters said. 

"It is important to note that the missile attacks did not target Camp Taji and the government has been informed that all New Zealand personnel are as safe as they can be in these developing circumstances."

Multiple countries have forces based in Iraq as part of the coalition against ISIS. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is currently out of the country.

12:20 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020

It's morning in Baghdad and Iraqis are waking up to the news

By Tamara Qiblawi and Kareem Khadder in Baghdad

Dawn has broken in Baghdad, where Iraqis are just waking up to the news that Iranians fired ballistic missiles at US positions in their country.

Through the night, US helicopters had hovered overhead. To Iraqis now familiar with the sounds of war, that would have been the first sign that something was afoot.

After the attacks, the motors of an AC-130 Specter Gunship could be heard humming over central Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the US embassy. The aircraft is one of the most devastating ground attack aircraft in the US arsenal. 

Across the capital, Iraqis are hoping that their country does not, once again, turn into a proxy battleground for the US and Iran. For decades, Iraqis have suffered from cycles of violence, invasions, sanctions, terror bombings and brutal crackdowns, and in a series of protests last year fiercely called for an end to foreign influence and meddling.

12:05 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020

US Democratic presidential candidates react to Iran attacks

Democratic presidential contenders are reacting to the strikes. On Twitter, former vice president Joe Biden said "I’m going to hold off on commenting on the news tonight until we know more, but there is one thing I will say: Jill and I are keeping our troops and Americans overseas in our prayers. We hope you’ll keep them in yours."

Other leading candidates also focused on the fate of US troops in the region, with former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg tweeting that "tonight, Americans in Iraq are under fire. My prayers are with them, their loved ones, and their families."

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren echoed the sentiment, adding "this is a reminder why we need to de-escalate tension in the Middle East. The American people do not want a war with Iran."

12:10 a.m. ET, January 8, 2020

What we know about the targeted military bases

From CNN's Tamara Qiblawi

Iran targeted two military bases that house US troops in Iraq earlier today -- the Al Assad air base and a base in Erbil. Here's what we know:

Al Assad airbase is one of the largest and oldest military bases in Iraq. It is located in Anbar province, a hotbed of ISIS activity in western Iraq between 2014 and 2017.

In December 2018, US President Donald Trump visited troops at Al Assad. “ We came in, we were — we felt very safe coming in. It was a pretty difficult journey in certain ways, but we felt very, very good; very safe,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript. 

Vice President Mike Pence visited Al Assad a year later to celebrate Thanksgiving with roughly 150 service members. 

The Erbil base is located in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The US worked closely with Kurdish fighters in the campaign against ISIS.

11:27 p.m. ET, January 7, 2020

South Korea "closely monitoring" the situation

From CNN’s Yoonjung Seo in Seoul

South Korea says it is “receiving real-time reports and closely monitoring the current situation” in Iran.

In a statement, the Blue House spokesperson said “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working closely with local authorities focusing on the safety of South Korean citizens”.

Separately, the ministry said its task force team is “working on the estimate of damages and/or details” in relation to the Iran attack.

It added that South Korean companies with employees based in Iraq are increasing security and reviewing their emergency escape plans.

South Korean employees in Iraq have been advised to refrain from leaving their compounds.

11:01 p.m. ET, January 7, 2020

If you're just waking up, here's what's happening

Iran launched a ballistic missile attack at two Iraqi bases which house US troops, in the early hours of Wednesday morning local time. More than a dozen missiles struck the al-Asad airbase and another base in Erbil.

So far it seems that there were no casualties. US military sources said troops were given enough warning to reach shelters before the missiles struck.

The attacks were Iran's response to the US killing last week of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran has called that attack an "act of war" and "state terrorism" and vowed a response.

After the attacks, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted in the early hours of Wednesday morning that Iran did not "seek escalation or war."

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched," he tweeted.

US President Donald Trump has not issued a formal statement or addressed the nation since the strike. On Twitter, he said that "All is well!"

"Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq," Trump added. "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."

Flights have been diverted from Iranian and Iraqi airspace, and other countries with troops based in Iraq for the fight against ISIS have been closely monitoring the situation.

10:39 p.m. ET, January 7, 2020

US official: Military had early warning of missile attack

From CNN's John Kirby

A US military official has told CNN that the military did have enough early warning of the ballistic missile attack on airbases in Iraq to sound the alarm.

People in harm's way were able to get to bunkers in time, the official said.