US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House on January 7 2020. Picture: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House on January 7 2020. Picture: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Baghdad/Washington — Iran launched missile attacks on US-led forces in Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday in retaliation for the US drone strike on an Iranian commander whose killing has raised the fear of a wider war in the Middle East.

Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles from its territory against at least two Iraqi facilities hosting US-led coalition personnel at about 1.30am (10.30pm GMT on Tuesday), the US military said.

US President Donald Trump said in a tweet late on Tuesday that an assessment of casualties and damage from the strikes was under way and that he would make a statement on Wednesday morning.

“All is well!” Trump, who visited the al-Asad airbase in December 2018, said in the Twitter post.

One source said early indications were of no US casualties. Other US officials declined to comment.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps confirmed they fired the missiles in retaliation for last week’s killing of Qassem Soleimani, according to a statement on state TV.

The force advised the US to withdraw its troops from the region to prevent more deaths and warned US allies including Israel not to allow attacks from their territories.

Iranian television reported a senior official in the Iranian supreme leader’s office said the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios.

Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement the bases targeted were al-Asad airbase and another facility in Erbil, Iraq.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend US personnel, partners, and allies in the region.”

Hours earlier on Tuesday, US defense secretary Mark Esper said the US should anticipate retaliation from Iran over Friday’s killing in Iraq of Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force.

“I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form,” he told a news briefing at the Pentagon.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran “took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN charter”.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote in a post on Twitter.

If the US military was indeed spared casualties, and Iran has completed its threatened retaliation for the US drone strike on Soleimani, as Zarif suggested, there might be an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to seek an off-ramp to their increasingly violent confrontation.

Asian stock markets, which had been roiled by the attack, pared some of their losses after the tweets from Trump and Zarif. US crude prices also retreated after surging almost 5% on the worry any conflict could cut oil supplies.

US carriers banned from airspace

The US Federal Aviation Administration said it would ban US carriers from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and several Asian carriers said there were avoiding flying over the region.

In an apparently unrelated incident, a Ukrainian airliner with at least 170 people on board crashed on Wednesday due to technical problems soon after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported.

There was no immediate information about casualties.

The Philippines has ordered its citizens to leave Iraq, the Philippine foreign ministry said, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had cancelled a plan to visit the Middle East this weekend, TV Asahi reported.

Democrats in the US Congress and some of the party’s presidential contenders warned about the escalating conflict.

“We must ensure the safety of our service members, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war,” US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.

Soleimani, a pivotal figure in orchestrating Iran’s long-standing campaign to drive US forces out of Iraq, was also responsible for building up Tehran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East.

He was a national hero to many Iranians but viewed as a dangerous villain by Western governments opposed to Iran’s arc of influence running across the Levant and into the Gulf region.

US officials have said Soleimani was killed because of solid intelligence indicating forces under his command planned attacks on US targets in the region, although they have provided no evidence.

Soleimani’s burial went ahead after several hours of delay following a stampede that killed at least 56 people and injured more than 210, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

Iran TV reported Soleimani was buried after the missile attacks. “His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” it said.

The missiles were launched on Wednesday at the same time that he was killed last Friday.

Soleimani’s body had been taken to holy Shiite Muslim cities in Iraq and Iran, as well as the Iranian capital, Tehran, before arriving to be buried in the city cemetery’s “martyrs’ section”, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.

In each place, huge numbers of people filled thoroughfares, chanting: “Death to America” and weeping with emotion. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept as he led prayers in Tehran.

More than 5,000 US troops remain in Iraq along with other foreign forces as part of a coalition that has trained and backed up Iraqi security forces against the threat of Islamic State militants.

About 115 German soldiers are stationed in Erbil and all were fine, a spokesperson for Bundeswehr operations said.

Reuters