LONDON: Footage has emerged of an Iranian missile attack on a US airbase in Iraq last year that could have brought the two countries to the brink of war.
On Jan. 8 last year, 11 missiles, each thought to have been carrying 1,000-pound warheads, hit Al-Asad airbase, which was home to some 2,000 US troops at the time.
The incident followed the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by a US drone in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
That strike was ordered after a spate of incidents targeting American personnel and facilities by Iran-backed forces in Iraq, culminating in an assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the Middle East, told American TV network CBS that more than 100 troops suffered severe brain injuries due to the attack. He said there was a “retaliation plan” in place in the event that any US personnel were killed.
Half the personnel and most of the aircraft were evacuated from the base before the attack, with McKenzie saying if that had not been done in time, “I think we might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and we might have lost 100 to 150 US personnel. We had a plan to retaliate if Americans had died.”
When the retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination came, McKenzie was stationed in Florida and monitored the attack remotely, joined by then-President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
McKenzie said: “I’ve never been on one (call) like this where real missiles (were) being fired at our forces and where I thought the risks were so high.”
An intelligence officer reportedly told senior figures that the “intention is to level this base and we may not survive.” The missiles left vast craters and destroyed entire buildings.
Maj. Alan Johnson prepared a farewell video message for his son, urging him to “be strong” and to look after his mother, believing he might not survive the night.
He described the impact that the missiles had on detonation as being “like a freight train,” telling CBS: “Words can’t even describe the amount of energy that is released by these missiles.”
He added that he and 40 other men at one point sought refuge in a bunker designed to house 10 people from much smaller ordinance blasts. “The fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air,” he said.
Sgt. Kimo Keltz, who was stationed inside a guard post to fend off any possible attack by ground troops during the missile barrage, said: “We got down and we protected our vital organs, our heads, and we waited. One of the closest (missiles) that had hit directly near us actually lifted my body about two inches off the ground.”
Despite no fatalities, hundreds of troops started reporting headaches and other side effects, including vomiting, in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
Keltz described a two-week long concussion he suffered as being like “someone hitting me over the head with a hammer over and over and over.”
Johnson was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for courage during the attack, but sustained severe head trauma that still affects him today.
“Headaches every day, horrible tinnitus or ringing in the ears, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I still have nightmares,” he said.
Despite the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic since the exchange of hostilities, and a change of US leadership, tensions between Tehran and Washington remain high.
Last week, US President Joe Biden launched an attack on pro-Iran militants on the Syrian-Iraqi border following an attack on the largest American base in Iraq on Feb. 15 by Tehran-backed forces.