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Trump says Iran ‘standing down’ after missile strikes

(AFP)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday said Iran appeared to be “standing down” after missile strikes against Iraqi bases that caused no US casualties, indicating there would be no immediate new military response.

In a televised address to the nation from the White House, Trump emphasized that there were “no Americans harmed” in the salvo of missiles aimed at two bases.

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While he promised to immediately impose “punishing” new economic sanctions against Iran, Trump welcomed signs that Iran “appears to be standing down” in the tit-for-tat confrontation, signaling that the United States did not plan a new military riposte.

Trump closed his remarks by addressing Iranians directly, saying that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

However, the US president, facing both an impeachment trial in Congress and a tough reelection in November, touted his decision to order the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last Friday — the operation that prompted Tehran’s missile strike.

Soleimani, a national hero in Iran, was “the world’s top terrorist” and “should have been terminated long ago,” Trump said.

Although Trump ended his remarks with the call for peace, he opened by stating bluntly that he would never allow Iran to procure a nuclear weapon.

He then urged European allies and other world powers to follow America’s lead in abandoning a teetering international agreement on managing the country’s nuclear ambitions.

– Missiles blast bases –

Iran’s missiles targeted the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Arbil, both housing American and other foreign troops deployed in a US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State jihadist group. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missiles a “slap in the face” for the United States and indicated that more was to come.

“An important incident has happened. The question of revenge is another issue,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state television.

The office of Iraq’s premier said it had received “an official verbal message” from Iran informing it that a missile attack on US forces was imminent.

“Iraq rejects any violation of its sovereignty and attacks on its territory,” the statement said, without specifically condemning the missile strikes.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh denounced the attack and said it rejected attempts to turn Iraq into a “battlefield for warring sides”. 

Iraq’s military said it sustained no casualties in 22 missile strikes, most of them hitting Ain Al-Asad.

– Fire, then restraint –

The brazenness of the strike was highly unusual for Iran, which has tended to disguise attacks on US interests or troops through its use of proxy Shiite forces. 

“Ballistic missiles openly launched from Iran onto American targets is a new phase,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias.

But as the dust settled, it appeared that Iran’s strike — coming soon after the burial of Soleimani at a funeral in front of vast crowds — might have been more symbolic than anything.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps warned any US counter-attack would be met with an even “more crushing response” and threatened to strike Israel and America’s “allied governments.”

However, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to indicate that Iran was satisfied for now.

“Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Zarif said on Twitter.

– Condemnation –

The strikes sparked worldwide condemnation, including from NATO, Germany, France and the UK.

France said its forces deployed in Iraq sustained no casualties while the UK was concerned about “reports” of victims as British troops are stationed there. The Norwegian military said coalition troops were warned of the attack in advance through intelligence channels.

The apparent deescalation did not remove pressure from approximately 5,200 US troops stationed across Iraq, where Iran has close links to powerful armed Shiite militias.

And Iranian allies in the country said they still intend to take revenge for Friday’s US attack in which top Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani.

Muhandis was the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, a military network incorporated into the Iraqi state whose factions are backed by Tehran.

Paramilitary chief Qais al-Khazali — blacklisted as a “terrorist” by the US — said his side’s response to the United States ” will be no less than the size of the Iranian response.”

The Iraqi parliament has called for expulsion of US troops in the wake of the operation last week and there was embarrassing confusion at the Pentagon over the US response.

– Overflights suspended –

Separately, a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 crashed just outside Tehran after taking off bound for Kiev, killing all 176 people on board.

There was no immediate suggestion of any link with the Iranian strikes but carriers including Air France, Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa announced they were suspending flying though Iranian and Iraqi airspace as a precaution. 

The US aviation regulator banned civil flights over Iraq, Iran and the Gulf, citing the potential for “misidentification” of aircraft.

burs-sms/ec

Sebastian Smith, with Maya Gebeily in Baghdad and Marc Jourdier in Tehran

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