|Operation Martyr Soleimani|
|Part of the American-led intervention in Iraq and Persian Gulf crisis|
|Operational scope||Military strike targeting multiple sites|
|Target||Ayn al-Asad Airbase|
|Date||8 January 2020 (UTC+03:00)|
|Executed by||Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps|
|Outcome||11 Qiam 1 missiles hit Ayn al-Asad Airbase|
1 Fateh-313 missile hits 20 miles from Erbil International Airport
1 Fateh-313 missile reaches Erbil International Airport and does not explode
4 missiles fail in flight
|Casualties||110 U.S. military personnel wounded (traumatic brain injury)|
Ayn al-Asad Airbase
Location of the targets hit
On 8 January 2020, in a military operation code named Operation Martyr Soleimani (Persian: عملیات شهید سلیمانی), Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched numerous ballistic missiles at the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Al Anbar Governorate, western Iraq, as well as another airbase in Erbil, built by the South Korean Zaytun Division in 2004 during the Iraq War, in the Kurdistan Region, in response to the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani by a United States drone strike. While the U.S. initially assessed that none of its service members were injured or killed, the U.S. Department of Defense ultimately said that 110 service members had been diagnosed and treated for traumatic brain injuries from the attack.
The U.S. said it was able to avoid fatalities due to early warning provided by the United States Space Force. Iraq confirmed that Iran had informed the Iraqi government hours before the attack, and the information was reportedly passed on to the U.S. military. Some analysts suggested the strike was deliberately designed to avoid causing any fatalities in order to dissuade an armed American response. However, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the attack was intended to kill. The U.S. deployed Patriot and other missile defense systems to some of their Iraqi bases in the months following the attack.
Hours after the missile attacks, IRGC forces mistakenly shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, killing 176 people.
In the lead up to the attacks, Iranian officials had said Iran would retaliate against U.S. forces for the killing of general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on 3 January 2020. U.S. President Donald Trump warned that any retaliation would result in the targeting of 52 significant Iranian sites, including cultural ones, by U.S. forces. Reportedly, following the Baghdad strike, U.S. intelligence agencies detected Iran's heightened readiness but it was unclear at the time if they were defensive measures or an indication of a future attack on U.S. forces.
On 4 January 2020, two rockets hit the Balad Air Base located near Baghdad. Two mortars also hit Baghdad's Green Zone. These attacks resulted in no casualties or damage. On 3 December 2019, an Iraqi military statement said five rockets had landed on the Ayn al-Asad airbase, with no injuries. Later, a "security source" inside Ayn al-Asad airbase and a "local official at a nearby town" told Reuters that reports the airbase was under attack at that time were false. These reports on Twitter temporarily caused a rally of U.S. and Brent crude oil futures.
On 8 January 2020, shortly after midnight, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi reportedly received a message from Iran indicating that the response to General Soleimani's death had "started or was about to start". Exact locations were not disclosed, but U.S. officials later confirmed their troops had adequate advanced warning of the attack and had taken shelter.
According to the state-run Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Iran launched "tens of ground-to-ground missiles" at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops. ISNA added that the code used to launch the missiles was "Oh Zahra". The attacks unfolded in two waves, each about an hour apart; Fars News Agency subsequently released video of the missile launches. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took responsibility for the attack and announced that it was carried out in response to the killing of Soleimani. The IRGC said the strikes came at roughly the same time of day Soleimani died and added that if the U.S. retaliated, they would respond in kind. It also declared that the attack was intended as a warning that applied to any regional actor that provides basing for U.S. military personnel. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran symbolically targeted the bases, alleging they were the bases used to launch the aircraft that assisted in the killing of Soleimani.
Although the Pentagon disputed the amount launched, it confirmed that both the Ayn Al Asad airbase and an airbase in Erbil were hit by Iranian missiles. A spokesman for United States Central Command said fifteen missiles were fired; ten hit the Ayn Al Asad airbase, one hit the Erbil base, and four failed to reach their targets. U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper later gave a similar estimate, saying 16 short-range missiles had been launched from three locations within Iran, with 11 striking Ayn al-Asad (instead of the prior estimate of 10). Kurdish security officials told CNN that at least two targeted Erbil: one hit Erbil International Airport and did not explode, the other landed about 20 miles west of Erbil.
According to the Iraqi military, 22 missiles were fired between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m. local, 17 toward Ayn Al Asad base and five at Erbil. According to U.S. troops at Al Asad, the first missiles landed at 1:34 a.m. and were followed by three more volleys, spaced out by more than 15 minutes each. The attack was over by 4:00 a.m.
Tasnim News Agency reported that the IRGC used Fateh-313 and Qiam ballistic missiles in the attack and wrote that U.S. forces failed to intercept them because they were equipped with cluster warheads. Fox News reported that due to the lack of a missile defense system at the bases, no missiles were intercepted.
The U.S. military initially assessed that there were no casualties, which was later echoed by the president. President Trump stated that the damage sustained was minimal. The U.S. defense secretary said the damage was limited to "tentage, taxiways, the parking lot, damaged helicopter, things like that, nothing I would describe as major".
Iranian television claimed there were 80 U.S. deaths as well as damage to U.S. helicopters and "military equipment". Senior Iraqi officials said there were no Iraqi casualties. Among the coalition forces present in the two bases, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Norway, and Poland confirmed that their personnel were unharmed. OPEC's secretary-general Mohammed Barkindo, while on conference in Abu Dhabi, announced that Iraqi oil facilities were secure.
According to The Military Times, a U.S. commando said Al Asad Airbase suffered the brunt of the missile barrage. Satellite photos provided by Planet Labs showed extensive damage to the base, with at least five structures damaged in the attack, showing that the missiles were precise enough to hit individual buildings. David Schmerler, an analyst with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, which evaluated the photos, said the attacks seem to have hit buildings that store aircraft, while buildings used for housing staff were not hit. Two U.S. defense officials told Newsweek that 18 missiles, which used on-board guidance systems, landed in Al Asad airbase, three of them on the runway, while another hit and damaged an air control tower. One Black Hawk helicopter was destroyed, ten tents were "destroyed", and an MQ-1 Predator drone was alleged to have been damaged, although Al Asad hosts only U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reapers and Army MQ-1C Gray Eagles as MQ-1 Predators were phased out from USAF service in March 2018. Damaged structures also reportedly included a special forces compound, and two hangars, in addition to the U.S. drone operators' housing unit. Some soldiers lamented losing all their personal belongings—clothing, books, pictures of their families, and mementos they had carried through more than a decade in the military.
U.S. soldiers stationed at Ayn Al Asad later confirmed that they had received advanced warning of the missile attack before the Iraqis notified them, and that by 11:00 p.m. (local), several hours before the first missiles landed, most of the American section of the base was in lockdown while other troops had been flown out. Only essential personnel such as tower guards and drone pilots remained unsheltered as they were protecting against a ground assault which base commanders expected would follow the missile attack. The base did not have structures in place to defend against a missile attack of the kind launched by the IRGC, with many taking cover in concrete indirect fire bunkers and pyramid-like hardened aircraft shelters that were built during the Iran–Iraq War. Troops re-emerged from their shelters at the break of dawn.
Several European and U.S. government officials believed that Iran deliberately avoided inflicting fatalities in their operation in order to send a message of resolve to avenge Soleimani without provoking a substantial military response. However, Pentagon officials said they believed the missiles were intended to kill Americans. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley believed the missiles were intended to cause structural damage, to destroy vehicles, equipment, and aircraft, and to kill personnel, adding that defensive measures by U.S. troops and early warning systems were what prevented personnel from being killed. According to the Center For Strategic & International Studies, the Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS) warned troops to prepare for incoming attacks, although the Pentagon did not confirm the presence of any missile defense systems at either Ayn Al Asad airbase or the base near Erbil. Lieutenant general David D. Thompson, vice commander of the United States Space Force, later said on 27 February that the warning messages sent to Al Asad base from Buckley Space Force Base had prevented U.S. fatalities. Lieutenant Colonel Tim Garland, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Al Asad base, said the missile volleys were timed in such a way as to trick soldiers into thinking the bombardment was over. Iranian aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh said the intention was not to kill any American troops but that they could have planned the operation to do so and stated that Iran launched cyber attacks that disabled U.S. missile tracking systems during the strikes. He added that driving out U.S. forces from the region was the only fitting revenge for the killing of General Soleimani.
CBS's 60 Minutes, which had interviewed U.S. troops stationed at Al Asad Airbase, revealed on 28 February 2021 that more than 50 aircraft and 1,000 troops were evacuated, before the missiles hit. It also highlighted the conditions of troops on the ground, reporting that at one point 40 personnel were attempting to stuff themselves into a bunker which was made to house about ten people.
Lt. Col. Tim Garland said two soldiers who had been in guard towers at Ayn Al Asad airbase were blown from their posts during the missile attacks, suffering concussions.
On 16 January, over a week after the attack, several U.S. defense officials confirmed that "out of an abundance of caution" 11 U.S. troops were medically evacuated to military hospitals—three to Camp Arifjan in Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait and eight to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany—to be treated for traumatic brain injury and to undergo further evaluations. The first service member was flown out of Iraq on 10 January, while others were evacuated on 15 January. According to a senior defense official, "About a week after the attack some service members were still experiencing some symptoms of concussion," adding that "We only got wind of this in the last 24 hours." Another official said that it was standard procedure for all personnel in the vicinity of a blast to be screened for TBI.
In contrast to the U.S. reports, Alqabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, wrote on 18 January that 16, not 11, U.S. service members were transferred to Camp Arifjan, some of whom were treated for severe burns and shrapnel wounds as well as TBI.
The injury reports raised questions about initial U.S. assessments that there were no casualties and ignited debate over the Pentagon's longstanding treatment of brain injuries as a different class of wounds that, it says, do not require them to be regarded as "casualties". The Pentagon sharply denied that it attempted to underplay injuries from the attack, with a spokesman saying that the secretary of defense himself only learned of the medevacs a few hours before the general public did, and that brain injuries often take time to manifest and diagnose.
On 24 January a Pentagon spokesman said that 34 service members had traumatic brain injuries from the attack. 18 of them were evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and eight of those were subsequently sent to the U.S. for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Another was evacuated to Kuwait. 16 service members were treated in Iraq and had returned to duty.
On 28 January, according to several Pentagon officials, around "200 people who were in the blast zone at the time of the attack have been screened for symptoms." As a result, "50 U.S. service members have been diagnosed with TBI." It was said that the number of diagnosed may change, as the new information was that 31 of them had been treated in Iraq, while 18 (up from the previous figure of 17) were treated in Germany. By 22 February, the official count of troops injured had risen to 110. The Pentagon said that all were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury and 77 had already returned to duty.
While damage assessments were still underway, Iranian state-run Mehr News Agency wrote "over 80 American troops were killed and some 200 wounded", citing an informed source at the IRGC. Later, a hoax Pentagon memo claiming 139 American troops were killed was spread on social media. Mike Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer, attributed the forged memo to an IRGC disinformation attempt.
Shortly after the attacks, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) prohibiting U.S. civil aviation operators from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airlines diverted their flights from Iranian airspace following the attacks.
In his first public comments on the attack, at 8:45 pm EST on 7 January, President Donald Trump tweeted "All is well!", said that damage assessments were ongoing, and added that he would make a statement on the attack the following morning. In his televised White House statement, while being flanked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump sought to reduce tensions by downplaying the impact of the missile attacks, observing that Iran appeared to be "standing down", and ruling out a direct military response. Furthermore, Trump said he was willing to "embrace peace" and urged greater international cooperation in the region, suggesting it is possible for Iran and the U.S. to fight against a common enemy such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. However, there were no suggestions that his administration's "maximum pressure" campaign would relent, with his announcement of new sanctions on Iran and affirmation that they would never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons while he was in office.
In a letter to the United Nations, the U.S. wrote that it is braced to take further necessary action in the Middle East to ensure safety of U.S. personnel, and it is also ready to "engage in serious negotiations with Iran without preconditions" to avert war.
On 10 January, the Trump administration imposed new economic sanctions on Iran that targeted the country's metals industry, including the construction, manufacturing, textiles and mining economic sectors. U.S. treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin noted that the sanctions on metals and other industries would be both primary and secondary sanctions that allows the U.S. to designate other sectors in the future. Additionally, the U.S. announced 17 specific sanctions against Iran's largest copper, steel, aluminum, and iron manufacturers, a network of Chinese and Seychelles-based entities, and a vessel involved in the transfer of metal products. The administration also sanctioned eight senior Iranian officials who were involved in the missile attacks, including the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani Araghi, and IRGC senior officer Gholamreza Soleimani.
By 13 April, the U.S. had installed and activated Patriot air defense systems, an Army C-RAM system, and an AN/TWQ-1 Avenger at Al Asad Airbase and the base at Erbil, and at Camp Taji, after gradually moving the systems into Iraq since the attack.
Hours following the initial missile attacks on Iraq, and after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced the NOTAM for the region, a Boeing 737-800 crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, including at least 130 Iranians. Iranian officials initially said the plane crashed due to technical failures unrelated to the missile attacks. However, they drew skepticism when they refused to allow Boeing or U.S. aviation officials access to the black boxes.
On 11 January, after The New York Times obtained and published video showing the moment the aircraft was hit by an Iranian missile, The Iranian government admitted to having shot down the plane due to human error, stating the military mistook the plane for a "hostile target". A wave of anti-government protests emerged across Iran in response to the attempted cover-up, with some protesters demanding the Ayatollah resign. U.S. President Trump tweeted support for the protesters in English and in Farsi. British ambassador to Iran Robert Macaire was arrested and held in custody for more than an hour after attending a gathering at Tehran's Amirkabir University of Technology. According to Tasnim News Agency, he was arrested for "suspicion of organising, provoking and directing radical actions". UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab called the ambassador's arrest "a flagrant violation of international law".
On 8 January, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, said military actions are not enough and that the "corruptive presence" of the U.S. in the Middle East must be ended. Khamenei also described the attacks as a "slap in the face" to the U.S. Khamenei later reiterated this during a Friday sermon on 17 January, describing the attack as showing that "Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God".
After the attack, Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted "Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression."
European Union leaders urged President Trump, both in public and in private, not to give a military response. British prime minister Boris Johnson denounced the missile attacks on U.S. forces, urging Iran to avoid further "reckless and dangerous" strikes. In the U.S., both Democratic and Republican members of the Senate advised the Trump administration to deescalate its stance with Iran. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said, "I believe the President wants to avoid conflict or needless loss of life but he's rightly prepared to protect American lives and interests and I hope Iran's leaders do not miscalculate by questioning our collective will in launching further attacks."
Shortly after Trump's announcement regarding the 8 January attack, Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged his followers not to conduct any attacks against U.S. elements in Iraq. Sayyid Ali al-Sistani also called for ceasefire on both sides, saying the conflict violated Iraqi sovereignty. However, on 12 January, at least four Iraqi soldiers were injured after seven mortars attacked an airbase in Baghdad that housed U.S. trainers.
Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said the kingdom would stand with Iraq and do everything in its power to spare it from the "danger of war and conflict between external parties".
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin, that "no one has the right to throw the whole region, especially Iraq, into a new ring of fire for the sake of their own interests." He added "the tension between our ally U.S.A. and our neighbor Iran has reached a point that we do not desire at all," while promoting Turkey's diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Tehran to discuss the crisis with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The Qatari leader said de-escalation and dialogue were the only means to resolve the crisis and maintain peace. Sheikh Tamim was the first national leader to visit Iran following the death of General Soleimani.