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Understanding Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq

A missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq appeared to be Iran’s “strong revenge” for a drone strike that killed an Iranian major general. The view from the ground is not that simple.

This satellite image provided on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, by Middlebury Institute of International Studies and Planet Labs Inc. shows the damage caused from an Iranian missile strike at the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq. Iran’s actions were in response to the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Planet Labs Inc., Middlebury Institute of International Studies via Associated Press

Editor’s note: Dodge Billingsley is an independent scholar, director of Combat Films & Research and a military analyst with more than 25 years’ experience covering conflict and global hot spots. He is based in Salt Lake City and offers this perspective on the Iran missile attack for the Deseret News.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Iranian missile attack on the United States military base at the Irbil Airport in northern Iraq and the Ain al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, executed Wednesday morning local time, seems to have fulfilled Iran’s promise of “strong revenge” for the drone strike last week that killed Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani.

The reality on the ground is not that simple, considering both the broader situation in the Middle East and my own observations when I was at Ain al-Asad in 2011.

According to Iranian press sources, more than 30 missiles were launched in Operation Martyr Soleimani. The U.S. military has initially claimed that two missiles hit the base in Irbil while another 10 struck the al-Asad airbase. President Donald Trump and other nations with soldiers at the base, Australia and Canada, have confirmed they suffered no casualties.

The Iranian government has put out seemingly contradictory statements regarding the missile strikes, on one hand calling the attacks a proportional response to the killing of Soleimani and saying no further violent escalation is necessary. According to Iranian press outlet Fars News Agency, “the IRGC warned the U.S. to avoid retaliating the Wednesday attack or else “it will face a more painful and crushing response”. At the same time there have been other statements from Iranian officials suggesting that this is the beginning of a much broader retaliatory response against the United States.

Tactical decisions are never the result of only one set of circumstances and the Iranian choice to attack Irbil and al-Asad is likely the confluence of multiple factors and considerations. First, Irbil and al-Asad are far from Baghdad, the Iraqi seat of power. They are also in areas not inhabited by Shia Muslims (Iran is primarily Shia). Irbil is located in Iraqi Kurdistan and inhabited by Kurds — not an ally to Iran — and a strike of any sort that might result in civilian casualties would not be a concern in Iran’s operational planning. Al-Asad Air Base is located in Sunni territory in the far west of Iraq. Sunni Muslims are often rivals to Shia in the region. It is possible that Iran didn’t want the retaliatory missile strikes targeting U.S. positions in or near Shia populated areas like Baghdad.

It is also possible that the strike locations were influenced by the current Iraqi government’s favorable relationship with Iran. According to western media sources, at least one Iraqi official who wished not to be identified confessed concern that Iraq could become a battlefield between Iran and the U.S. The statement is a bit at odds with recent history. The very reason Trump targeted Soleimani is that in reality Iraq has been a battleground between Iran and the U.S. since the day U.S. forces crossed the border into Iraq in March 2003. It is likely that Iran consulted with Shia officials in the Iraqi government and that Irbil and al-Asad weren’t chosen by accident.

Al-Asad is the largest U.S. military-occupied base in Iraq (it is also home to Iraqi air force and ground units). At the time of the missile strike, the U.S. is said to have 5,000 soldiers in Iraq, the majority stationed at al-Asad to train the Iraqi military and conduct operations against ISIS. Al-Asad’s proximity to Iraq’s western border makes it a logical platform for launching operations into Syria. This is an important base for the U.S. Trump visited U.S. troops stationed there in December 2018. Vice President Michael Pence made a similar visit in November 2019.

Al-Asad is a sprawling base. During the U.S. war in Iraq, before the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011, it was the major U.S. asset in western Iraq. Thousands of soldiers, airmen and Marines were stationed there during the war. In 2011, Iraqi units occupied one side of the base while the U.S. forces controlled the other half of the base including the strategic airfield. The Iraqi and U.S. units operated harmoniously but checkpoints separated the Iraqi side from the U.S. side. Still, it wasn’t unusual for U.S. soldiers, off a patrol of the perimeter, to drive into the Iraqi side for better food.

Al-Asad’s most important features are two 18,000-foot long runways capable of handling even the largest, heaviest aircraft — making the base a strategic asset for whoever occupies it. At the base handover ceremony in December 2011, as U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Rock Donahue was signing the documents, a jubilant Iraqi Air Force commander told me and a few U.S. officers that al-Asad would serve as the strategic base for Iraq; a last line of defense against Iran (seems like this rationale has been flipped) and a forward point of attack against Israel.

Minutes later the same Iraqi Air Force commander asked the U.S. commander to help him thwart a base takeover by his own counterpart in the Iraqi Army. It was a surprising request and one the U.S. commander couldn’t oblige.

To say that missile strikes successfully hit al-Asad could be a little misleading. The base is so large and there is so much unoccupied acreage in the base that dozens of missiles could technically land inside the base perimeter and not hit anywhere close to anyone or anything that matters.

Those final weeks before the last U.S. soldiers withdrew from al-Asad in December 2011 are a case in point. With just about 200 soldiers left, it became impossible to man the base’s large perimeter. Before leaving to drive the last convoy to Kuwait, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Armored Division placed uniformed mannequins in some of the guard towers, part of a ruse to keep the enemy guessing as the number of U.S. troops became so small they couldn’t protect the entire base.

The Iranian strike against al-Asad, while certainly retaliatory, is also a message to the U.S., demonstrating that Iran is capable of reaching out and striking U.S. targets hundreds of miles from Iranian territory. For decades western defense analysts have debated Iranian nuclear ambitions and capabilities and also its missile technology — Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear warhead. By striking al-Asad, Iran put its medium range ballistic missile capability on display and let the region and the world know it isn’t afraid to use it.

Finally, Iran’s response is intended just as much for its own audience — the Iranian people, Shia combatants in Yemen, and the Bashar Assad regime and its forces in Syria — as it is for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Very public promises of revenge for the killing of Soleimani had to be fulfilled.