U.S. com­man­ders say Iran’s mis­siles were meant to kill

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LOUISA LOVELUCK

ain al-asad, iraq — U.S. com­man­ders at the Iraqi mil­i­tary base tar­geted by Ira­nian mis­siles said Mon­day they be­lieve the at­tack was in­tended to kill Amer­i­can per­son­nel, an act that could have pushed the two pow­ers closer to out­right war.

The mis­sile bar­rage last week against the sprawl­ing Ain alAsad air base in west­ern Iraq left deep craters and the crum­pled wreck­age of liv­ing quar­ters and a he­li­copter launch site. At least two sol­diers were thrown through the win­dow of a me­ter­shigh tower, and sev­eral dozen U.S. troops were later treated for con­cus­sions as a re­sult of the

mis­sile strikes, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials on the base said.

“These were de­signed and or­ga­nized to in­flict as many ca­su­al­ties as pos­si­ble,” said Lt. Col. Tim Gar­land, com­man­der of Task Force Jazeera and one of the most se­nior of­fi­cials on the base that day.

He said the strikes were es­pe­cially per­ilous be­cause they came in waves, with up to 15 min­utes be­tween each. Dur­ing those in­ter­vals, a rapid-re­sponse force was re­peat­edly on the move to as­sess blast sites and find col­leagues who were feared hurt.

The at­tack lasted more than an hour and a half, com­man­ders said, with ex­plo­sions il­lu­mi­nat­ing the land­scape for miles. In in­ter­views, more than a dozen troops de­scribed feel­ing the air turn warm as light filled the night sky and shock waves ripped through the air.

Lt. Col. Staci Coleman, who over­sees air­field op­er­a­tions, de­scribed the ab­sence of se­ri­ous in­juries as “mirac­u­lous.”

In the hours that fol­lowed the at­tack, Iran called it “harsh revenge,” say­ing it had killed dozens. Within a day, how­ever, U.S. and Iraqi of­fi­cials were re­port­ing that no­body had died.

Ac­counts from in­side the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have sug­gested that the ab­sence of fa­tal­i­ties was a cru­cial fac­tor in the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion not to es­ca­late fur­ther. “All is well!” he posted in a tweet hours af­ter the at­tack. But across Ain al-asad, the tes­ti­mony of wit­nesses and dam­age in sev­eral ar­eas seemed to in­di­cate that the lack of se­ri­ous ca­su­al­ties was at least partly due to luck.

With ten­sions run­ning high early last week af­ter the U.S. killing of Ira­nian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Bagh­dad, the alAsad base had al­ready been on high alert, ex­pect­ing more of the kind of rocket at­tacks that have tar­geted U.s.-led coali­tion and Iraqi forces across Iraq for months. The base hosts about 2,000 troops, 1,500 of them from the U.s.-led coali­tion.

But at 11 p.m. Tues­day, an­other call came in, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials re­counted. They were told to ex­pect an un­prece­dented at­tack on U.S. ground forces from neigh­bor­ing Iran in­volv­ing bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials on the base said they saw this as the worstcase sce­nario, send­ing the fa­cil­ity into lock­down and forc­ing a swiftly planned dis­per­sal of troops among cramped shel­ters, watch­tow­ers, and bunkers built deep un­der­ground by the army of former Iraqi pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein, Gar­land said.

More than two hours passed, leav­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cials to won­der whether it had been a false alarm.

The of­fice of Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi later said it no­ti­fied Iraq’s Joint Op­er­a­tions

Com­mand, which shares an op­er­a­tions room with the U.s.-led coali­tion, about 30 min­utes be­fore the ac­tual at­tack be­gan.

Then, min­utes be­fore 1:30 a.m. Wed­nes­day, a new warn­ing came. Radar in­di­cated that a bal­lis­tic mis­sile strike was im­mi­nent. Loud­speak­ers blared warn­ings, and the base braced for im­pact.

“Right be­fore the first wave be­gan, it was quiet, but then over the ra­dio we heard a crackle and ‘in­com­ing, in­com­ing,’ ” said 1st Lt. Charles Dun­can, 25, stand­ing amid the charred and twisted rem­nants of an­other sol­dier’s liv­ing space. “In those sec­onds, we just waited.”

Amid con­cerns about a po­ten­tial ground in­cur­sion, some troops stayed out all night, man­ning the perime­ter and check­ing for ca­su­al­ties as the at­tack con­tin­ued, of­fi­cials said.

From a watch­tower, Cpl. Joel Val­divia, 30, said he could see the first four mis­siles com­ing. Min­utes af­ter he sent warn­ing to a rapid-re­sponse team, he said, the air filled with light, and then the struc­ture be­gan to shake.

Down be­low, sev­eral dozen troops were in ar­mored ve­hi­cles and on foot. Staff Sgt. Ar­mando Martinez, 35, whose job had been to as­sess any ca­su­al­ties, said he heard Val­divia’s ra­dio call and dived be­hind a wall for cover.

Emerg­ing when the first vol­ley ap­peared to be over, he was caught on the open ground when his ra­dio went out and a sec­ond wave hit. He saw nowhere to run and so went down on one knee as a young sol­dier helped him try to re­store the con­nec­tion.

In­side some bunkers, the im­pact of the mis­siles sent door frames deeper into the ground, sol­diers said. Pre­fab­ri­cated build­ings were twisted into un­rec­og­niz­able car­casses of metal.

The all-clear was sounded shortly be­fore the sun rose, with troops emerg­ing wary, re­lieved and shot through with adrenaline. It was a clear morn­ing with the sky burn­ing or­ange, and the sight, sev­eral ser­vice mem­bers said, was “beau­ti­ful.”

In an ad­dress to the na­tion later that day, Pres­i­dent Trump said that no Amer­i­can or Iraqi per­son­nel had been killed, and that Iran “ap­peared to be stand­ing down” af­ter fir­ing 16 bal­lis­tic mis­siles at bases host­ing U.S. forces, in­clud­ing 11 that landed at al-asad.

On Mon­day, troops were still wear­ing body ar­mor while walk­ing through open spa­ces on the base. In the can­teen, wooden chairs were up­turned on the ta­bles, as per­son­nel were re­quired to grab their food and then leave.

Walk­ing toward the exit doors, a young ser­vice­woman nudged her friend’s arm and laughed. “Not nor­mal here these days, is it?” she quipped.

ABOVE: U.S. of­fi­cials stand near a crater caused by a mis­sile strike.

PHO­TOS BY EMILIENNE MALFATTO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP ROW FROM LEFT: U.S. of­fi­cials stand near a dam­aged in­stal­la­tion at the al-asad base. A closeup of dam­age from the Ira­nian mis­sile strikes. U.S. Army of­fi­cial An­toinette Chase talks to jour­nal­ists at the base. More dam­age at the in­stal­la­tion.

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