Iran Strikes Back: Missiles Rain Down On American Forces In Iraq (Updated)

Details are still coming in, but Iran has launched a missile attack against U.S. forces in Iraq, including Al Asad Air Base, in retaliation for the American drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, last week. A major rocket barrage on Al Asad, which sits around 115 miles west of Baghdad, may have also preceded the strikes. U.S. President Donald Trump has already threatened a major response, including potential strikes on cultural sites, against Iran in the event of any such attack.

Al Asad, also known as Ain Assad, hosts a large number of U.S. military personnel, as well as significant numbers of fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones. It is also the base that U.S. President Donald Trump traveled to in 2018 in his first visit to Iraq. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, as well as Iran itself and its other regional proxies, had vowed to retaliate against U.S. forces throughout the Middle East over the death of Soleimani, who had been head of the Quds Force, last week. The Quds Force is responsible for providing aid and assistance to foreign terrorist and militant groups and otherwise conducting covert activities outside of Iran. 

The exact scale and scope of the attack is unclear, but Iranian state media has confirmed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which the Quds Force is a part, carried out the attack. Reports say that as many as 10 ballistic missiles may have been launched toward Al Asad.

There are also reports that additional missiles were fired toward Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. U.S. defenses there may have shot at least one of these down. The U.S. military, as well as the U.S. State Department, makes heavy use of portions of the airport in Erbil and the U.S. consulate there is a major diplomatic facility.

There are additional reports of additional missile strikes on other targets in the country, as well. 

Before the missile attacks, there were also reports of more than 30 rockets falling in and around Al Asad, but it’s unclear if this refers to the Iranian missiles. There were reportedly three waves attacks on the base in total.

Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have been firing rockets at bases housing U.S. forces on a semi-regular basis for years now. An attack involving 30 or more rockets would be in line with an earlier attack on K-1 base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in December 2019. That attack killed a U.S. military contractor and reportedly led to the U.S. government’s decision to kill Soleimani.

All of these incidents confusingly follow apparently false reports of attacks on the consulate in Erbil and Taji Air Base to the north of Baghdad.

U.S. President Donald Trump is reportedly monitoring the situation with his national security team. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had just said earlier in the day that “I think we should expect that they [Iran] will retaliate in some way, shape or form” in the near term. At noted, Trump has already threatened to respond to any such Iranian attack.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 7:30pm EST

The Office of the Secretary of Defense has issued an initial statement saying that Iran fired “more than dozen ballistic missiles” at “at least two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. military and coalition personnel at Al-Assad and Irbil.”

Additional footage reportedly showing the launch of the missiles in Iran, as well as impacting in Iraq, continue to emerge on social media. Iran reportedly dubbed the strikes Operation Martyr Soleimani. The codename to launch the operation was reportedly Ya Zahraa, or “O! Zahraa,” a reference to Fatimah al-Zahra, the youngest daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and a particularly significant figure in Shia Islam.

UPDATE: 7:50pm EST

Iranian media is reporting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has fired another wave of missiles. This report coincides with news of possible strikes on Taji Air Base north of Baghdad. 

There is still no word of any U.S. casualties, but there are reports emerging of Iraqi casualties.

Iranian media has also reported that the missiles the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has employed are Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles, which have a maximum range of around 186 miles (300 kilometers). Iran has notably fired Zulfiqar short-range ballistic missiles, a derivative of the Fateh-110, at targets in Syria on at least two occasions, once in 2017 and again in 2018.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also issued its own statement directed to the American people urging them to “call the American troops to go back home” so as to “not let them to endanger the American troops’ lives by participating in warmongering policies.”

UPDATE: 8:05pm EST

VOA’s Carla Babb has now retracted her initial report that Taji Air Base was struck. This could indicate that Iranian media reports of an additional wave of missiles was simply a reference to one of the initially reported waves.

Pictures have also emerged reportedly showing the remains of one of the missiles near Erbil. This could be the one that reportedly shot down there earlier. It may have also simply malfunctioned. Experts also say that the missile in question appears to be a liquid-fuel type, rather than a solid-fuel one, such as the Fateh-110. One possible option would be the Qiam short-range ballistic missile, which Iran has also used in past strikes on Syria.

There are also now unconfirmed reports that U.S. combat jets have departed Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and that the Iranian Air Force has scrambled aircraft. American aircraft appear to be patrolling across Iraq, while Iranian jets are remaining in their own airspace, though.

UPDATE: 8:35pm EST

There continue to be no reports of U.S. casualties from the Iranian strikes, but casualty and damage assessments are still underway. Whether or not an American were injured or killed in the missile barrage will be a major factor in how and when the U.S. decides to respond.

At the same time, Iran has threatened additional retaliation, including via regional proxies, against both Israel and the United Arab Emirates, if the United States conducts its own strikes.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has now issued a prohibition on all U.S. commercial and civilian air operations over Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman due to the heightened risks of military activity and potential for misidentification.

UPDATE: 9:15pm EST

U.S. Central Command now says that Iran fired a total of 15 missiles, four of which failed in flight. Of the remaining 11, 10 struck Al Asad and one hit Erbil.

UPDATE: 9:45pm EST

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has issued a statement justifying the attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq as “proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN [United Nations] Charter.” Article 51 details the inherent right of all nations to individual and collective self-defense. Zarif also said that Iran does not seek further escalation, but pledged to “defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Separately, at an off-the-record background briefing following the missile strikes, the Department of Defense would not confirm what types of missile Iran or a number of other details about the incident.

A number of additional videos have also now emerged of the rockets hitting Al Asad.

UPDATE: 9:50pm EST

President Donald Trump has now sent out a Tweet regarding the strikes, confirming that there are still no known U.S. casualties at present. He also said he plans to make a full statement tomorrow morning.

UPDATE: 10:35pm EST

CNN is now reporting that there were no Iraqi casualties in the end. This could be a major factor in how the Iraqi government also chooses to respond to this situation. Unless officials in Baghdad agreed to the Iranian strikes, the missiles were technically directed at Iraqi bases and the strikes were in violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

There are also unconfirmed reports that a Boeing 737 with 180 people aboard, possibly belonging to Ukranian International Airlines, has crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s airport. Iranian media is reporting that the plane suffered an unspecified technical issue.

There was also a magnitude 4.9 earthquake in Iran’s Bushehr province relatively close to the country’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, but all indications point to a natural event. Another earthquake occurred in the same general area last month.

UPDATE: 11:45pm EST

Pictures from the crash site of Ukranian International Airlines flight PS752 are now available. Boeing has issued a statement saying that it is aware of the incident and is seeking additional information.

UPDATE: 12:36pm EST

Something to remember is that there is a tremendous amount of intelligence data to analyze from America’s space-based early warning network of infrared sensing satellites alone. Where the launches emanated from and where the missiles impacted, even the ones that missed, would have been recorded. The system can detect smaller infrared events as well and its data that could be used to help confirm if the Ukrainian airliner was indeed shot down. This same network, which is about to get even more capable, would have given near-instant warning that a launch was underway, which in turn gave American and allied troops time to take cover and prepare for the incoming bombardment. You can read all about this system in this past piece of ours.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 2:01pm EST

An official line out of Iran seems to be emerging that claims 80 were killed in their ballistic missile barrage. The quote from Al Jazeera reads

Iranian state television claimed that at least 80 “American terrorists” were killed in attacks involving 15 missiles Tehran launched on US targets in Iraq, adding that none of the missiles were intercepted. The claim could not be independently verified and the state television did not provide evidence of how it obtained that information.

Citing a senior Revolutionary Guards Corps source, the state television also said Iran had 100 other targets in the region in its sights if Washington took any retaliatory measures.

It also said US helicopters and military equipment were “severely damaged”.

We also have a bit on the breakdown of passengers aboard the doomed 737:

And a better picture of one of the missiles:


Iraqi security forces say nobody died in the ballistic missile barrage and the number of weapons was 24:

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Embassy in Iran sure seems quick to rule out a shoot down. It isn’t clear what they know and don’t know at this time:

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.