Iran launched a series of missile attacks aimed at U.S. bases in Iraq, Iranian state television reported Tuesday, saying that the missiles had been launched as the opening of Tehran’s “revenge” for the U.S. killing last week of a top Iranian general.
The semiofficial news agency Fars showed footage of what it said was “tens” of missiles being launched toward the Asad Air Base in northwestern Iraq, which houses both Iraqi and U.S. forces. The attack was the “beginning of a harsh Iranian revenge” for the death of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the Iranians said.
The apparent attack marks a major escalation of the conflict.
At the White House, Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said officials were “aware of the reports of attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq.”
“The president has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team,” she said.
Earlier, President Trump shifted his justification Tuesday for authorizing the killing of a powerful Iranian general as the top U.S. national security official belatedly provided classified briefings to congressional leaders about the administration’s claim that Qassem Suleimani had been planning an imminent attack on Americans.
Trump and his aides previously had insisted that Friday’s deadly drone strike was intended to stop the Quds Force commander from killing “hundreds” of Americans. But his fiery death in Baghdad instead saw Iranian leaders vow to “set ablaze” scores of Western targets, prompted ally Iraq’s threat to expel U.S. military forces and pushed the Pentagon to beef up U.S. troops and bolster defenses in the region.
With tensions rising, and unable to convincingly argue that Americans were safer, Trump and his aides instead pointed to Suleimani’s role supplying insurgents who killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq war. “It was retaliation,” Trump said Tuesday.
The change in emphasis fueled growing concerns about the administration’s still-murky strategy for dealing with Iran. It also underscored the unique challenge for a president who has uttered thousands of falsehoods since taking office as he and his aides sought to reassure Americans they can navigate a major foreign policy crisis, largely of their own making, before it spirals into all-out war.
“I don’t think any American president can simply say to the world, ‘Trust me,'” said Richard Haass, president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump has the added problem of his own record with the truth.”
“If you’re trying to justify something that could ultimately take you to war, you better damn well do that as quickly and directly as you can,” said Leon E. Panetta, who served as secretary of Defense and CIA director under President Obama. “The last thing that you need is to have an American public that questions why the hell we’re going to war.”
For the second day in a row, senior U.S. officials were forced to walk back Trump’s threats to bomb Iranian cultural sites, a potential war crime, if Iran launches retaliatory attacks. As criticism poured in, Trump appeared to back down, saying for the first time that he would not deliberately target Iran’s antiquities.
“If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he said.
In Baghdad, Iraq’s government demanded clarification over whether the approximately 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq were making plans to pull out after receiving a letter — twice — from a U.S. commander that the Pentagon said was sent in error.
Iraqi officials said the letter was delivered around 8 p.m., but the Arabic translation did not match the English-language version. Iraqi officials pointed out the discrepancy and later received a correct translation via official channels.
“It wasn’t a matter of a paper falling from a photocopier or something that came by accident,” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said in a speech Tuesday, adding that the Pentagon’s subsequent claims that the letter was a draft had bewildered the Iraqis.
“OK, this is a draft,” he said. “But we got it. So how should we behave?”
Abdul Mahdi urged Trump to withdraw U.S. troops, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper — holding his second press conference in two days — repeated his assertion that no pullout was underway or had been ordered.
“A draft, unsigned letter does not constitute a policy change,” Esper said. “And there is no signed letter, to the best of my knowledge. I’ve asked the question.”
Esper sought to defuse the heated rhetoric from both the White House and Tehran, offering Iran what he called “a big off-ramp” by backing down.
“It’s true we’re not seeking war with Iran,” he said. “What happens next depends on them. We should expect that they will retaliate in some way.”
Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, provided classified briefings Tuesday to the leaders of the House and Senate, and the chairs and ranking members of the Intelligence committees on the evidence available before last week’s drone strike. Normally the so-called Gang of Eight is informed before such a sensitive military operation takes place.
Esper, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel plan to brief rank-and-file lawmakers on Wednesday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee called a hearing on Iran for Jan. 14 and asked Pompeo to testify.
At the State Department, Pompeo told reporters that Suleimani posed an “imminent threat” to Americans. But he declined to provide evidence of the threat, instead blaming the veteran commander for a “terror campaign” as he oversaw Iranian military and proxy-force operations across the Middle East.
“We made the right decision. We got it right,” Pompeo said.
He dismissed Iraq’s claim that Suleimani had flown into Baghdad for talks with Saudi Arabia, its chief regional rival, as part of an initiative to ease tensions. “Anyone here believe that?” Pompeo said.
The contrasting statements and denials are now standard in the Trump era, though issues of war and peace are rarely so prominent.
Trump’s first Defense secretary, James N. Mattis, differed with Trump repeatedly. He disputed the president’s claims that torture was an effective counter-terrorism tool, slow-rolled Trump’s demands for creating a “space force” as a separate branch of the military and delayed executive orders to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, which ultimately prompted his resignation from the administration.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, waved off concerns about whether intelligence showed what Trump described as “imminent and sinister attacks.”
“I find that to be a tempest in a teapot,” he said.
Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of American troops, and U.S. officials had blamed him for recent Iranian-backed militia attacks on military bases in Iraq and violent protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that preceded Friday’s drone strike.
“The idea that there was no threat there is frankly silly,” he said. “I don’t think you need more than that.”
Times staff writers David S. Cloud, Jennifer Haberkorn and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and Nabih Bulos in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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