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Missile strike on U.S. bases ‘did not intend to kill,’ says Iranian commander

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/9/2020 Kareem Fahim, Sarah Dadouch
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ISTANBUL —An Iranian military commander said Thursday that a barrage of missiles fired at bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq were not aimed at inflicting casualties, in the latest sign that Iran was seeking to avoid any further escalation of hostilities with the United States.

After more than a dozen missiles crashed down on the bases on Tuesday, both sides for now appear to be stepping back from further conflict. 

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“We did not intend to kill,” said Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, according to Iranian state media. “We intended to hit the enemy’s military machinery.” He did, however, repeat the government’s claim that “tens of people were killed or wounded.” U.S. and Iraqi officials said the strikes caused no casualties.

Iran and the United States had been on a war footing since President Trump approved the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most prominent military commander, last week. Iran retaliated with the missile strike. By Wednesday, Iranian officials were suggesting that Iran did not intend any further attacks and Trump said he would not respond militarily to the Iranian strikes.

The soaring tensions had alarmed officials in Iraq, the main stage for the conflict between Tehran and Washington, and spooked governments throughout the region who feared a widening war.

Photo gallery by Reuters

Rocket attacks in Baghdad late Wednesday, however, suggested the risk of escalation had not yet passed. The strikes highlighted fears that Iraqi militias, backed by Iran, could pursue revenge for the killing of one of their leaders in the same attack that killed Soleimani.

Two rockets struck Baghdad’s Green Zone, which hosts the United States embassy and other foreign diplomatic missions, but caused no injuries, Iraqi authorities said.

Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Bagheri, Hossein Salami standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: A picture from the supreme leader office shows  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting newly-appointed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds force Esmail Qaani, Revolutionary Guard commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salam, Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri, during a mourning ceremony in Tehran, Iran Jan. 9, 2020. © Supreme Leader Office Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock A picture from the supreme leader office shows Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting newly-appointed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds force Esmail Qaani, Revolutionary Guard commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salam, Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri, during a mourning ceremony in Tehran, Iran Jan. 9, 2020.

Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the network of Iraqi militias known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, told the Iraqi News Agency the network was not responsible for the attack.

“The bombing of the Green Zone might be an individual reaction, or an attempt by some parties to distort the reputation of the Hashd and shuffle the cards,” he said. “We are calling on those behind the bombing to stop these actions that distort the reputation of Hashd factions.”

The tension in Iran, however, continues to affect the main mission of U.S. forces in Iraq — fighting the Islamic State. The coalition said Thursday that military operations against the extremist group in Iraq would remain “paused” while it focused on “protecting the Iraqi bases that host Coalition personnel.”

The conflict between the U.S. and Iran had sparked concern that operations against the Islamic State would be sidelined at a moment when the extremists, driven from the vast swath of territory they once held, try to regroup in parts of Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, hundreds of Islamic State fighters have made their way to rural areas in the north, stepping up their attacks in recent weeks, including ambushes and mortar strikes.

U.S. military officials first announced the suspension of anti-ISIS operations Sunday, as the Trump administration braced for possible Iranian attacks on American military bases in Iraq.

The same day, Iraq’s prime minister urged parliament to take “urgent measures” to force the withdrawal of foreign forces following the killing of Soleimani.

Lawmakers responded by passing a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to end the foreign troop presence in Iraq.

The coalition statement Thursday said it was awaiting “further clarification on the legal nature and impact of the resolution on foreign troops no longer being allowed to stay in Iraq.” Its training and support of troops fighting the Islamic State had been suspended, though other activities, including countering the militant group’s propaganda, would continue, the statement said.

kareem.fahim@washpost.com

sarah.dadouch@washpost.com

Dadouch reported from Beirut. Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim contributed from Baghdad

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