Washington/Baghdad/Dubai (Reuters): President Donald Trump on Wednesday tempered days of angry rhetoric and suggested Iran was “standing down” after it fired missiles at US forces in Iraq, as both sides looked to defuse a crisis over the US killing of an Iranian general.
Trump said the United States did not necessarily have to hit back after Iran’s attack on military bases housing US troops in Iraq, itself an act of retaliation for the 3 January US strike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani.
Trump said no Americans were hurt in the overnight attacks. The Pentagon said Iran had launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles, at least 11 of which hit Iraq’s al-Asad air base and one that hit a facility in Erbil but caused no major damage.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it. American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent,” Trump said.
“Our great American forces are prepared for anything. Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” he said.
Trump said the United States “will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime” in response to what he called “Iranian aggression.” He offered no specifics.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America,” said the missile attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who built up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown, Kerman, after days of national mourning.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who casts himself as a nationalist rejecting both US and Iranian interference in Iraq, also said the crisis Iraq was experiencing was over and he urged militia groups not to carry out attacks.
“I call on the Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions,” said Sadr, whom Washington has long regarded as an Iranian ally.
US Vice President Mike Pence told CBS News in an interview the United States was receiving “encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages” to its allied militias not to attack US targets.
But Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he and others in the military “fully expect” Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq, backed by Iran, to carry out attacks against US-led forces in Iraq and Syria.
Two rockets fell on Wednesday in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, causing no casualties, the Iraqi military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.