Tom Vaden Brook, John Bacon - Delaware Online
The U.S. military had advance warning of Iran's missile assault that damaged two Iraqi bases housing U.S. and coalition forces, a U.S. official told USA TODAY.
Iran fired more than a dozen missiles Tuesday in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike days earlier that killed one of Tehran's most powerful military leaders, Qasem Soleimani. Iranian state TV aired video of what its commentators said was the missiles being launched.
The missiles targeted al Assad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province and another base in Erbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The extent of damage to the bases was not immediately clear, but no deaths or injuries were reported.
A hangar at al Assad, a sprawling complex 100 miles west of Baghdad that houses about 1,500 coalition forces, was severely damaged, according to a U.S. official speaking to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, added that early-warning systems gave U.S. forces advance knowledge that missiles had been launched.
The warnings allowed troops and other personnel to scramble into hardened bunkers for safety. U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq on the mission to combat ISIS have been practicing drills for missile attacks for some time, the official said.
“The early warning system worked,” the official said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi said in a statement Wednesday that Iran notified Iraq the attack “had begun or would begin shortly,” on unspecified U.S. military locations. The U.S. military reported the attack at the same time, he said.
CNN, citing an Arab diplomatic source, reported that Iran notified Iraq in advance and that Iraqi officials then tipped U.S. troops before the attack began. A U.S. defense official also told CNN that Iraqis were told by Iran to stay away from certain bases.
The militaries of Finland and Lithuania, which had personnel at one of the targeted bases, said they also received information about an imminent attack and had time to take shelter or leave the base.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the bases had been on high alert due to indications that the Iranian regime planned an attack.
"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 said.
Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his country had "concluded proportionate measures" in response to a "cowardly armed attack against our citizens." Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated his nation's position that the U.S. must exit Iraq – and the Middle East.
"They were slapped last night, but such military actions are not enough," he said. "The corruptive presence of the U.S. in the West Asian region must be stopped."
NATO has temporarily suspended training of counter-ISIS forces in Iraq following the attack, a NATO official who was not authorized to speak publicly told USA TODAY. Some of the military personnel have been moved to new positions in and outside of Iraq, the officials said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the missile attack.
"NATO calls on Iran to refrain from further violence," he said. "Allies continue to consult and remain committed to our training mission in Iraq."
Anti-government protesters in Iraq blocked streets near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during a demonstration against the Iranian intervention in their country. The protesters carrying Iraqi flags shouted “Iran out, out!” before they were dispersed by security forces.
Meanwhile, top Trump administration officials are headed to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to brief lawmakers on the latest developments. Members of Congress initially sought Wednesday's closed-door briefings to learn more about Trump's surprise decision last week to authorize a drone strike that killed Soleimani, Iran's second most powerful official.