AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq—More than two hours before Iran fired its first salvo of missiles at the large base here in western Iraq last week, American soldiers took cover in concrete bunkers that once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s military.
Air Force Capt.
a 34-year-old from Alabama, said he had sent his wife a message telling her he loved her before seeking shelter in one of the bunkers, where there were no phone or radio connections. Some soldiers said they played the card game Uno and even dozed off as they waited to see what would happen.
The missiles started slamming into the base—which hosts the largest number of U.S. troops of any single facility in Iraq—around 1:30 a.m. last Wednesday, gouging craters in the surface of the airfield and torching metal containers. Personnel are still clearing the debris.
“We could feel the shock wave and when the impact hit, the bunker doors sunk in,” said Air Force Lt. Col.
“My personal opinion is that they really wanted to target our [air] assets and if they so happened to kill Americans in the process, that was OK with them.”
The day before, some of the roughly 1,500 U.S. troops stationed at Al Asad had been relocated to other bases to limit exposure based on information that suggested an attack was likely imminent. They have largely returned to the base.
The U.S. military, which maintains a world-wide network of sensors and radar systems, said its detection technology and defensive measures alerted U.S. forces to the impending Iranian attack and allowed at least an hour for American forces to prepare and take cover.
U.S. officers at Al Asad said they had information Iran was poised to retaliate for the targeted killing of Maj. Gen.
on Jan. 3. The strike that killed the Iranian commander has unleashed a tide of anti-American sentiment, raising questions about the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq and the fight against Islamic State.
Immediately after the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister
indicated in a tweet that Al Asad had been targeted because it served as the launchpad for the strike that killed Mr. Soleimani.
With a perimeter of around six miles, the base is part of a larger installation housing Iraqi troops. It also hosts a smaller contingent of Norwegian, Polish and Danish troops.
Days before the strike hit Al Asad, supporters of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia had attempted to storm the American Embassy in Baghdad. That was after the U.S. struck the group’s bases along the Syrian border, having blamed the militia for a rocket attack on a base hosting coalition troops in northern Iraq that killed an American contractor.
There were no casualties in Iran’s attack on Al Asad, and Chief Warrant Officer
33, who is responsible for securing base’s Reaper drones, which are used for air surveillance, said there had been no damage to any assets.
But soldiers who lived through the attack described fearful moments as they came under fire.
Lt. Col. Coleman said she had been informed around 9 p.m. of the expected missile attack and began evacuating around half of the 200 people under her command by 10 p.m. She then sought shelter in a bunker around 300 yards from the spot one of the missiles would land.
who was in charge of coordinating emergency response when the Iranian attack took place, said she had issued instructions for the base to go on lockdown at 11 p.m. on Tuesday.
“We actually received some things earlier in the day that kind of let us know that we needed to reposition our forces,” Lt. Col. Chase said.
At 11:30 p.m., she issued the command for everyone to go down into the bunkers. People guarding the perimeter of the base stayed on duty in case the missile strike was the precursor to an attack by land.
The first barrage of missiles struck the base at around 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday and continued at intervals for the next two hours. Lt. Col. Chase said the missiles were able to be detected four to five minutes before they hit their targets.
Most of the missiles hit an airfield, blasting craters about 20 feet in diameter and four to five feet deep in the ground. The impact blew the walls off nearby portable buildings.
As soldiers hunkered down, unable to communicate with troops at the surface, they didn’t know what was happening and feared someone might have been killed.
“That was a big part of the uncertainty,” Capt. Brown said, adding that he and around 30 other soldiers counted five volleys of incoming missiles.
Around sunrise, they emerged after a knock on the door of the bunker signaled the danger had passed.
“My nerves were shot,” he said.
Surveying the damage on Monday, as bulldozers scooped up the mangled metal structures of huge tents that usually house aircraft, he acknowledged Iran’s capabilities. “It’s impressive. The accuracy is not out of the realm of abilities.”
Iran said it didn’t intend to kill anybody with the strikes, though some soldiers disputed the claim.
“You’re in a region that is full of conflict,” said First Sergeant
42, who like many of the older servicemen has been deployed in Iraq before.
At least one of the missiles landed in an area that had been used as living quarters. A blaze had charred and melted metal containers that serve as bedrooms and the force of the blast toppled four-ton blast walls.
“We were in real danger here,” Lt. Col. Chase said.
In recent months, Al Asad and other bases hosting U.S. troops have become magnets for rocket attacks in which Iraqi security forces have been wounded and which the U.S. has blamed on Iran-backed Iraqi militias.
Lt. Col. Coleman described those attacks as pebbles compared with the impact of the Iranian missiles. Asked about the potential for future attacks from Iran, she said: “There’s a part of me that’s concerned.”
Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected]
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