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Three hours to attack: inside the race to protect US forces from Iran

The early warning provided by intelligence helps explain in part why the missiles exacted a negligible toll, destroying only evacuated aircraft hangars as they slammed into the desert sand in barren stretches of the base. No Americans or Iraqis were killed or wounded, and Trump, who indicated to advisers he would prefer to avoid further engagement, was relieved.

Afterwards, the President and Vice-President spoke to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, and some urged Trump to try to dampen the crisis.

This account of the tense hours surrounding the attacks is based on interviews with current and former American officials and military personnel in both Washington and Iraq.

As it turned out, the missile strikes might end up being a bloodless close to the latest chapter in America’s simmering, four-decade conflict with Iran. The next day Trump declared that Iran “appears to be standing down” after days of heightened tensions since the US killing of General Qassem Soleimani, although few who closely follow the dynamics of the United States’ relationship with Iran foresee a peaceful future.

“If this is indeed the sum total of Iran’s response, it is a big signal of de-escalation that we should gratefully receive,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, who handled Middle East issues on the National Security Council earlier in the Trump administration.

Bracing for retaliation

Hours before officials at the White House and Pentagon arrived at their desks on Tuesday, American troops in Iraq were preparing for Iran’s retaliation to avenge the death of the general.

Spy satellites had been tracking the movements of Iran’s arsenal of missile launchers, and communications among Iranian military leaders intercepted by the National Security Agency had indicated that the response to Soleimani’s killing might come that day.

Ain Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar province was the focus of numerous vague threat reports, including one warning that hundreds of fighters from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia trained and equipped by Iran, might launch a frontal assault on the base.

The base was relatively vulnerable; no Patriot anti-missile systems protected it, according to an American military official. They had been deployed to other countries in the Middle East deemed more susceptible to Iranian missile attacks. So American commanders prepared to partly evacuate the base and assigned most other remaining forces to hardened shelters to ride out whatever attack would come.

This aerial photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base

This aerial photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air baseCredit:AP

By morning in Washington, the intelligence was still vague enough that White House officials decided to keep Trump’s planned schedule, including the meeting with Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Administration officials resumed their defence of Soleimani’s killing amid increasing criticism that they lacked, or were unwilling to share, the intelligence that they said prompted the strike. At the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at a packed news conference that killing Soleimani “was the right decision”.

Days earlier, he had said the killing had been necessary to prevent “imminent” attacks. On Tuesday morning, he gave a different message, citing the death of an American contractor killed in late December when Iranian-backed Shiite militias fired rockets at a military base in Iraq.

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“If you’re looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani,” Pompeo said.

Hours later, as Trump met with Mitsotakis, the White House received the “squawk” alert about a likely missile strike. Pence and O’Brien led the initial discussion in the Situation Room about how to confront the threat, assessing the intelligence about the Iranians’ likely targets.

Upstairs inside the Oval Office, Trump sat beside Mitsotakis as reporters peppered him with questions about the Iran crisis. The President hedged about threats he had made days earlier that the United States might consider targeting Iranian cultural sites – but he maintained a menacing tone.

“If Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly,” Trump said. “We’re totally prepared.”

Confusion and misinformation

After the brief news conference ended, Trump descended several flights of stairs to the Situation Room.

With sandwiches piled on a sideboard, the group that advised the President at different times throughout the day included a handful of seasoned national security officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, an Army veteran of nearly 40 years; Keith Kellogg, a retired Army lieutenant general who serves as national security adviser to Pence; and Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has become a driving force in the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has become a driving force in the Trump administration’s Iran policy.Credit:Bloomberg

It also included Pompeo, who has become a driving force in the Trump administration’s Iran policy and an advocate of what he often calls “restoring deterrence” against Tehran’s aggression in the Middle East. As a forceful proponent of the Friday strike that killed Soleimani, Pompeo had played an instrumental role in bringing Trump to the crisis point.

But others around the long, rectangular table in the Situation Room had only modest foreign policy experience – including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff and a former congressman from South Carolina; and O’Brien, who was a Los Angeles lawyer before spending 2½ years as Trump’s chief hostage negotiator and assumed the post of national security adviser in September.

Appearing on a video screen was Gina Haspel, the CIA director, who was monitoring the crisis from the agency’s headquarters in northern Virginia. In the days before Soleimani’s death, Haspel had advised Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed, the very situation that appeared to be playing out.

Although Haspel took no formal position about whether to kill Soleimani, officials who listened to her analysis came away with the clear view that the CIA believed that killing him would improve – not weaken – security in the Middle East.

But at that moment days after his death, the President and his aides were confronting a flurry of conflicting information. Around 4pm, reports came in that a training camp north of Baghdad might have been hit. Officials at the White House and the State Department waited anxiously for the Pentagon to provide damage reports about the camp, Taji air base, where American, Australian, British and New Zealand, troops are stationed. It was a false alarm, although American officials later said they believed that several missiles fired in the barrage a day earlier were intended for the base.

As the reports about Taji came in, loudspeakers at the US Embassy in Baghdad announced that an attack could be imminent. As they had in the previous days, American and Iraqi personnel inside the compound raced toward bomb shelters.

Roughly one hour later, the first missiles bound for Ain Asad streaked over their heads.

A hail of missiles

At about 5.30pm in Washington, the Pentagon detected the first of what would be 16 short- and medium-range Fateh 110 and Shahab missiles, fired from three locations inside Iran.

Several slammed into Ain Asad but did only minimal damage. They hit a Black Hawk helicopter and a reconnaissance drone, along with parts of the air traffic control tower, according to a military official familiar with a battle damage assessment of the strike.

The attack also destroyed several tents.

Minutes later, a salvo of missiles hit an air base in Erbil, in northern Iraq, which has been a Special Operations hub for hundreds of American and other allied troops, logistics personnel and intelligence specialists throughout the fight against the Islamic State. The damage to that base was unclear, although no personnel were killed or wounded.

Satellite image shows the damage caused from an Iranian missile strike at the Ain Asad Air Base in Iraq.

Satellite image shows the damage caused from an Iranian missile strike at the Ain Asad Air Base in Iraq. Credit:Planet Labs Inc./Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP

Why did the Iran strikes do such little damage? Trump attributed it to the “precautions taken, the dispersal of forces and an early warning system that worked very well.” A senior American military official dismissed the idea that Iran had intentionally avoided killing American troops by aiming instead for uninhabited parts of the two bases.

Still, American officials acknowledged that Iran’s leaders showed restraint in planning the missile strikes, especially after the fiery talk from Tehran after Soleimani’s killing.

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“We’re receiving some encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages to those very same militias not to move against American targets or civilians. And we hope that that message continues to echo,” Pence said during an interview on CBS News.

After the attacks subsided, Trump and Pence made a round of calls to congressional leaders, and even some of the President’s hawkish allies said that Trump should be measured in his response to the Iranian strikes.

Recounting his conversation with Trump, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, said he told the President, “Let’s just stand down and see what happens for a few days”.

Advisers also discussed whether Trump should give an address, and several aides, including Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, as well as Pence, worked on one Wednesday morning in the hours before the President spoke on national television. More than a half-dozen drafts circulated as aides scrambled to prepare for the speech.

One military official was given only 20 minutes’ notice to head to the White House to stand behind Trump as he spoke in the Grand Foyer of the White House in the late morning, and Trump made edits right until he stepped up to the lectern.

The New York Times

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