Iran attacked a US base in western Iraq early Wednesday, Iranian official news media and US officials said, the start of what Iran had promised would be retaliation for the killing of a top Revolutionary Guards commander.
"The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun," Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in a statement on a Telegram channel.
Iranian news media reported the attack hours after the remains of the commander, General Qassem Soleimani, were returned to his hometown in Iran for burial.
Hossein Soleimani, the editor-in-chief of Mashregh, the main Revolutionary Guards news website, said that short-range ballistic missiles had been fired at the US base at Asad, in Anbar province, in western Iraq.
One US official said six rockets had landed at Al Asad Air Base, but could not confirm that they were missiles.
Iraq's Joint Military Command said seven rockets had hit the base. Iranian officials said the attack began at 1.20 am local time, the time that Qassem Soleimani was killed by an American drone at the Baghdad airport Friday.
The White House said in a statement that it was "aware" of attacks on US facilities in Iraq. "The president has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team," the statement said.
President Donald Trump visited US military forces at Al Asad in December 2018, making his first trip to troops stationed in a combat zone.
The strike at Al Asad came less than two hours after reports circulated that rockets had been fired on Taji Air Base, an Iraqi military base where US troops are deployed. Officials said the reports of an attack there appeared to be false.
'He was clearly on the battlefield'
Defence Secretary Mark T Esper said on Tuesday that General Qassem Soleimani had planned attacks to occur within days, laying out the administration's legal justification for killing the Iranian commander in a drone strike.
US officials have been pressed over their claims that they targeted Soleimani to forestall imminent attacks against US interests.
At a Pentagon news conference Tuesday, Esper was asked whether attacks had been expected in days or weeks. "I think it's more fair to say days," the defence secretary said.
He declined to offer more details, nor to describe the intelligence underpinning that assessment.
Esper said Soleimani, who was killed Friday in Iraq, "was in Baghdad to coordinate additional attacks".
"He's been conducting terrorist activities against us and our coalition partners for over 20 years," Esper said, "He has the blood of hundreds of Americans, soldiers, on his hands and wounded thousands more. And then we could talk about all of the mayhem he's caused against the Syrian people, the people of Lebanon. Even his own people in Iran."
He added: "To somehow suggest that he wasn’t a legitimate target, I think, is fanciful. He was clearly on the battlefield."
Esper also said that despite an unsigned draft letter from the U.S. military command in Baghdad on troop withdrawal and a unanimous vote by the Iraqi parliament, the United States does not plan to pull its troops out of Iraq right now.
The Pentagon has made preparations in anticipation of Iranian retaliation, Esper said, and US troops in West Asia are on a heightened state of alert.
"I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form," Esper said, "We're prepared for any contingency and then we'll respond appropriately to whatever they do."
Trump walked back his threat to strike Iranian cultural targets
President Donald Trump on Tuesday told reporters he would avoid targeting cultural sites in military attacks, walking back a threat he made against Iran days earlier.
Following a bipartisan and international uproar, Trump conceded that striking such sites would amount to a war crime. "If that's what the law is, I like to obey the law," he said in the Oval Office as he hosted the visiting Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
His remarks to reporters came a day after Esper said striking Iranian cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime. That appeared to put him at odds with his boss.
"We will follow the laws of armed conflict," the defence secretary said at a news briefing at the Pentagon on Monday when asked if cultural sites would be targeted.
On Saturday, Trump declared that the United States had identified 52 potential targets in Iran, some "important to Iran & the Iranian culture".
None of them qualified as cultural sites, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified.
But the president's threats and his initial refusal to back down in the face of criticism generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting US military leaders.
Some NATO troops are leaving Iraq
NATO is removing some of the trainers who have been working with Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State, in the wake of the US killing of Soleimani.
On Monday, the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that training had been temporarily suspended.
Describing security of NATO personnel, the organisation said in a statement that it would be taking precautions — including "the temporary repositioning of some personnel to different locations both inside and outside Iraq".
NATO "maintains a presence in Iraq" and remains committed "to fighting international terrorism", an official said, but refused to provide "operational details" about troop movements.
NATO has had roughly 500 soldiers doing the training.
Some NATO countries, like Canada, Germany and Croatia, have announced that they are moving troops out of Iraq altogether, at least temporarily, because of security concerns.
Canada is temporarily moving to Kuwait some of its 500 military personnel based in Iraq, the country's top military official, General Jonathan Vance, said in a letter posted on Twitter on Tuesday.
Thirty of the 120 German soldiers in Iraq will be sent to Jordan and Kuwait, while others will remain positioned in the less volatile Kurdistan region, the German defence and foreign ministries said in a joint letter to the German parliament, the Bundestag.
"When the training is able to resume, the military personnel can be reinstated," the letter said.
Croatia has also moved its small contingent of soldiers — 14 — from Iraq, with seven bound for Kuwait and the rest headed home, the Croatian defence ministry said. Slovakia has also removed its seven soldiers.
Some NATO troops began leaving Baghdad’s Green Zone in helicopters Monday night. The NATO training mission began in 2018 at Iraq's request.
Iran issued new threats before the funeral procession
Iranian State-run news outlets reported a deadly stampede during the funeral procession for Soleimani in his hometown, Kerman, in southeastern Iran, on Tuesday.
Millions were reported to have flooded the town's streets to witness the procession for the general, who was killed in an American drone strike in Baghdad last week.
In a fiery speech made in Soleimani's hometown, the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps vowed to "set ablaze" places where Americans and their allies live.
"We will take revenge — a revenge that will be tough, strong, decisive and finishing and will make them regret," the corps leader, Hossein Salami, said on Tuesday in front of a crowd of mourners. "We will set ablaze the place they like, and they know where it is."
"Today, the seeds of hatred for the US have been sown in the hearts of Muslims," he added, according to Fars, an Iranian news agency associated with the Revolutionary Guards.
The pledge to seek vengeance echoed the rhetoric of many of the country's leaders since Soleimani's killing on Friday. "Death to Israel," the crowd chanted back, according to news reports. Israel, a close ally of the United States, has long been an enemy of Iran.
Thousands of mourners, dressed in black and carrying photos of Soleimani, crowded the central square of Kerman, where the general’s body was taken for burial after a funeral procession Monday in Tehran, the capital.
Before arriving in Kerman, the general's remains were taken to the holy city of Qom, where thousands of residents came out, hoping for a chance to touch the coffin of a man the state has declared a martyr.
On Monday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept and offered prayers over Soleimani's coffin at the enormous state funeral. The ayatollah, Iran's supreme leader, had a close relationship with the general, who was widely considered to be the country's second-most powerful man.
Soleimani's successor swore revenge during Monday’s ceremony.
"God the almighty has promised to get his revenge, and God is the main avenger," said Esmail Ghaani, the Iranian general who will succeed Soleimani as head of the Quds Force, the foreign expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guards. "Certainly, actions will be taken," he added.
As the world focused on Iran, Putin took a bow in Syria
With the American role in West Asia in flux, President Vladimir Putin of Russia flew to Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday for a victory lap of sorts.
Highlighting Russia's newfound influence in the region, Putin met with President Bashar al Assad of Syria, the strongman whose rule was largely rescued by Russian military intervention in Syria's civil war.
Putin told Assad that "one can now confidently state that huge strides have been made in restoring Syrian statehood and the territorial integrity of the country," a Kremlin statement said.
The Kremlin made no mention of Iran in its description of Putin's visit, which had not been announced of Moscow in propping up Assad against Syrian rebels, including those backed by the United States.
Russia has called the killing of Soleimani of Iran illegal and expressed condolences to Tehran. On Wednesday, Putin is scheduled to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in Istanbul, with Syria and Libya on the agenda, according to the Kremlin.
France's president urged calm in a call with his Iranian counterpart
President Emmanuel Macron of France spoke with the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, by phone Tuesday afternoon to plead for calm and de-escalation.
Macron called on Iran to "refrain from any step that might aggravate the escalation already underway," according to a statement from the Élysée Palace, the seat of the French presidency.
France has tried to play the role of mediator between the Iranians and Americans for months, but in vain.
The French president also called on Iran to respect the 2015 nuclear accord, and to release two French academics, Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, who are being held there, a major source of tension between the two countries.
Iran's foreign minister says he was denied visa for UN
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said on Tuesday that he had been rejected for a visa to attend a Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York, confirming reports from US news outlets that he would be barred.
Zarif, in an interview with the Iranian news outlet Press TV, said that his office had requested a visa weeks ago to participate in the meeting Thursday, rejecting claims by US officials that they had not had time to process the application.
"The Americans are trying to create the impression that our request to attend the meeting was put forth following the assassination of Soleimani," Zarif said, according to the news outlet, adding, "The question everyone needs to be asking this lawbreaking administration is: What are they so scared of?"
Zarif later posted on Twitter about the situation, taking aim at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump.
During a Tuesday morning news conference, Pompeo was asked about the visa but said he would not comment specifically on visa matters. He added that the United States would "comply with our obligations" under UN rules.
Robert C O'Brien, the US national security advisor, was asked on Fox & Friends on Tuesday morning about the visa.
"I don't think Pompeo thought that this was the right time for Zarif to come to the United States, and whenever he comes to New York, he spreads propaganda," O'Brien said.
In August, the United States announced sanctions on Zarif, a seasoned diplomat who helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal.
The New York Times c.2020 The New York Times Company
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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 08:03:53 IST