Inside Iranian rocket attack that pushed US to the brink of war

Terrifying new footage has revealed the moment that Iranian missiles slammed into a US airbase in Iraq five days after the slaying of Tehran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani.

Marine General Frank McKenzie told CBS there was a ‘retaliation plan’ if any Americans had been killed that night and estimated that more than 100 soldiers would have died if it weren’t for the evacuation.

Eleven missiles carrying 1,000-pound warheads rained down on Al Asad air base, where 2,000 American troops were stationed in western Iraq on January 8, 2020. 

A hundred soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries, many still suffering from headaches today, as explosions thundered overhead and sent fire spewing 70ft into the night sky.

Half the base was evacuated before the attack was launched, but another 1,000 troops were needed to man the base – some even stationed in outposts above ground in case of an infantry assault.

Footage of the aftermath shows craters more than 10ft deep blown into the ground, buildings torn apart and concrete barriers which were flung across the air base. 

New footage shows the moment that Iranian missiles rained down on Al Asad air base in western Iraq on January 8, five days after the slaying of Qassem Soleimani

New footage shows the moment that Iranian missiles rained down on Al Asad air base in western Iraq on January 8, five days after the slaying of Qassem Soleimani

New footage shows the moment that Iranian missiles rained down on Al Asad air base in western Iraq on January 8, five days after the slaying of Qassem Soleimani

Images from a drone which were fed back to HQ in Tampa and to the White House where Donald Trump monitored the assault

Images from a drone which were fed back to HQ in Tampa and to the White House where Donald Trump monitored the assault

Images from a drone which were fed back to HQ in Tampa and to the White House where Donald Trump monitored the assault

The skeleton of a building

The skeleton of a building

A crater at the base

A crater at the base

Footage of the aftermath shows craters more than 10ft deep blown into the ground, buildings torn apart and concrete barriers sent flying across the air base.

The ruined base after 11 missiles carrying 1,000-pound warheads hit their targets

The ruined base after 11 missiles carrying 1,000-pound warheads hit their targets

The ruined base after 11 missiles carrying 1,000-pound warheads hit their targets

Footage take during the attack shows black smoke and fire rising into the night sky

Footage take during the attack shows black smoke and fire rising into the night sky

Footage take during the attack shows black smoke and fire rising into the night sky

A US soldier stands in one of the huge craters left by the bombardment on January 8, 2020

A US soldier stands in one of the huge craters left by the bombardment on January 8, 2020

A US soldier stands in one of the huge craters left by the bombardment on January 8, 2020

Soleimani was assassinated on January 3 outside Baghdad airbase, prompting fury from Tehran that nearly led to all out war

Soleimani was assassinated on January 3 outside Baghdad airbase, prompting fury from Tehran that nearly led to all out war

Soleimani was assassinated on January 3 outside Baghdad airbase, prompting fury from Tehran that nearly led to all out war

General McKenzie, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, believes that had he not ordered his troops to evacuate then the US would have gone to war with Iran.

‘I think we might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and we might have lost 100 to 150 U.S. personnel,’ he told 60 Minutes.

‘We had a plan to retaliate if Americans had died.’

Army Major Alan Johnson, who was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for their courage during the attack, sent a goodbye message to his son shortly before the bombardment started.

‘Hey buddy. If you’re seeing this video some bad things happened to Dad last night… So I need you to be strong, OK, for mom. And just always know in your heart that I love you, OK. Bye buddy,’ he said in the video.

Johnson said the missiles rattled overhead ‘like a freight train’ before they crashed to the ground as up to 40 soldiers crammed into bunkers made for only 10 people, and built to withstand warheads weighing just 60 pounds.

‘Words can’t even describe the amount of energy that is released by these missiles,’ Johnson told CBS. 

Army Major Alan Johnson, who was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for their courage during the attack, sent a goodbye message to his son shortly before the bombardment started

Army Major Alan Johnson, who was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for their courage during the attack, sent a goodbye message to his son shortly before the bombardment started

Army Major Alan Johnson, who was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for their courage during the attack, sent a goodbye message to his son shortly before the bombardment started

‘Knocked the wind out of me followed by the most putrid tasting ammonia tasting dust that swept through the bunker coated your teeth …

‘The fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air.’

The Major said he thought ‘we’re going to burn to death’ as he and other men scrambled to run the distance of a football field to take cover in tiny bunkers already filled to the brim with terrified troops.  

‘The only thing I can actually come up with is that the hand of God protected us,’ Johnson said. ‘Because really nobody should have lived through this.’ 

General McKenzie was monitoring the attack from headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and was joined on a call by the Secretary of Defense and President Donald Trump.

‘I’ve never been on one [a call] like this where real missiles being fired at our forces and where I thought the risks were so high,’ he told CBS.

McKenzie said they were sure that Iran would respond to the killing of Soleimani, who was assassinated by a drone strike outside Baghdad airport on January 3. 

But he is nonetheless certain that killing the Iranian commander was the right thing to do.

‘The blood of many Americans is on the hands of Quasem Soleimani. He was as close to an indispensable man as you could find inside Iran. Where he went violence and death followed,’ the general said.

‘I never take killing anyone as, as an easy decision, but I think the risk of not acting in this case outweighed the risks of acting, so, yes, I was good with the decision.’

But afterwards he said there was ‘a very ominous silence’ as Tehran weighed its next move in the fight. 

Intelligence soon reached the US that Iran was fuelling 27 medium-range ballistic missiles to target Al Asad. A total of 16 missiles were fired on January 8, five missed and 11 hit their target.

Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie smiles during the promotion ceremony as the new commander of U.S. Central Command at Macdill Air Force Base March 29, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. He monitored the attack with President Donald Trump and the Secretary of Defense

Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie smiles during the promotion ceremony as the new commander of U.S. Central Command at Macdill Air Force Base March 29, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. He monitored the attack with President Donald Trump and the Secretary of Defense

Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie smiles during the promotion ceremony as the new commander of U.S. Central Command at Macdill Air Force Base March 29, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. He monitored the attack with President Donald Trump and the Secretary of Defense

‘Their intention is to level this base and we may not survive,’ one intelligence officer reported to the top brass before the attack.

McKenzie described how the evacuation of the 1,000 troops from the base had to be carefully managed so that the Iranians wouldn’t see the men leaving and have time to adjust their plan of attack.

Tehran monitored Al Asad by buying satellite imagery, so McKenzie waited until it had downloaded its last picture of the day.  

‘They would have seen airplanes on the ground and people working,’ he told CBS.

The aftermath of the missile attack

The aftermath of the missile attack

The aftermath of the missile attack

The Iranians thought they were going to kill a number of Americans that day, but most had taken cover or left the air base.

Some, however, faced the terrifying prospect of having to remain above ground during the bombardment in case it was followed up by a ground attack.

Sgt. Kimo Keltz was inside a guard post when the missiles hit.

‘We got down and we protected our, our vital organs, our heads, and we waited,’ he told 60 Minutes.

‘In one of the closest ones that had hit directly near us had actually lifted my body about two inches off the ground.’

From the first launch to the last impact, 80 minutes went by and somehow nobody died.

However, for medics at the base it quickly became clear they were dealing with a mass casualty event as hundreds of troops started vomiting and reported headaches.

Keltz said he had a concussion for two weeks and it felt like ‘someone hitting me over the head with a hammer over and over and over.’

Major Johnson also suffered a brain injury and still suffers the effects today.

‘Headaches every day, horrible tinnitus or ringing in the ears. PTSD. You know, I’ll be willing to admit that. I still have nightmares,’ he said.

The skeletal remains of a building at the Al Asad air base following the attack

The skeletal remains of a building at the Al Asad air base following the attack

The skeletal remains of a building at the Al Asad air base following the attack

Debris and smouldering wreckage following the Iranian strike last year

Debris and smouldering wreckage following the Iranian strike last year

Debris and smouldering wreckage following the Iranian strike last year 

A pile of debris at the US base in western Iraq last year as Iran and America went to the brink of war

A pile of debris at the US base in western Iraq last year as Iran and America went to the brink of war

A pile of debris at the US base in western Iraq last year as Iran and America went to the brink of war

Iranian TV captures the moment when a missile destined for the US airbase was launched

Iranian TV captures the moment when a missile destined for the US airbase was launched

Iranian TV captures the moment when a missile destined for the US airbase was launched

Iran remained on alert in the wake of their strike, anticipating a full-blooded US retaliation.

Just hour later a Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 passengers was shot down as it took off, perhaps underlining the anxiety within the Islamic Republic.

Since then Joe Biden’s administration has inherited these tense relations with Iran.

Last week, Biden approved the bombing of pro-Iran militants on the Syrian border with Iraq after discovering weapons smuggling.

That strike followed an attack by Iran-linked militia on America’s largest base in Iraq on February 15.

The rocket attack at Erbil airport, where most of the remaining 2,000 US troops in Iraq are stationed, injured several Americans and killed a foreign contractor. 

ESCALATING TENSIONS BETWEEN THE US AND IRAN 

May 2018: Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal which was drawn up in 2015 under President Obama.

August 2018: The Trump Administration imposes first round of sanctions, prohibit trade with a number of business sectors

November 2018: The Trump Administrations imposes a second round of sanctions which target oil and banking industries. The sanctions have a crippling effect on the Iranian economy

April 2019: Trump designates one arm of the Iranian military as a ‘terrorist group’ – an inflammatory move that prompts the Iran to hit back and call the US a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’

Iraqi security forces deploy during the second day of protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 2019

Iraqi security forces deploy during the second day of protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 2019

Iraqi security forces deploy during the second day of protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 2019

US soldiers keep watch on the US embassy in Baghdad from an observation post

US soldiers keep watch on the US embassy in Baghdad from an observation post

US soldiers keep watch on the US embassy in Baghdad from an observation post

US soldiers keep watch on the US embassy in Baghdad from an observation post

Under siege: US soldiers keep watch on the US embassy in Baghdad from an observation post in December 2019

May 2019: Four tankers – including two belonging to US ally Saudi Arabia – are struck and damaged in the Gulf of Oman. The US blames Iran for the attack

May 2019: A rocket lands near the US embassy in Baghdad, prompting Trump to tweet ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!’

June 2019: Iran shoots down a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. An enraged Trump who considers launching airstrikes in retaliation

July 2019: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said that if any more American drones violated Iranian airspace ‘then they will receive the same response’ as the one that was blasted out of the sky the previous month

July 2019: Additional troops and fighter jets are put in place in the Middle East ‘to defend American forces and interests’ amid escalating tension

September 2019: Iran is blamed for an attack on two Saudi oil fields responsible for five percent of the global oil supply – or about 5.7 million barrels per day. Secretary of State Pompeo described the attack as ‘an act of war’

September 2019: US national security officials reportedly presented President Trump with a ‘menu’ of options that include military strikes and cyber attacks

November 2019: Rocket attacks increase on Iraqi military bases which are hosting American service personnel. Intelligence officials believe Hezbollah is behind the attacks

December 2019: Thousands of pro-Iranian militia men storm the US embassy in Baghdad.

January 2020: Trump orders a Reaper Drone strike which obliterates top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani outside the airport in Baghdad.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani was slaughtered in a US Reaper drone strike in January 2020

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani was slaughtered in a US Reaper drone strike in January 2020

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani was slaughtered in a US Reaper drone strike in January 2020

Iran vows revenge for the killing and rockets strikes are launched by pro-Iranian factions against US bases in Iraq. 

Two British warships are ordered to escort UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz.  

March 2020: Another rocket strike in Iraq kills two Americans – a soldier and a contractor – and a British soldier.

April 2020: Revolutionary Guards chief Hossein Salami says he has ordered Tehran’s naval forces to destroy any US warships that threaten the ‘security’ of Iranian vessels, after Trump said he had told the US Navy to fire on any Iranian ships that harass it at sea. 

October 2020: US threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad unless the attacks stopped.

December 2020: Spray of rockets are launched at the US embassy. Trump vows that if one American is killed he will launch a massive bombing campaign. 

January 2021: Iran seizes a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Gulf, the first such seizure in more than a year.

It comes amid Iranian pressure on Seoul to release $7billion in Iranian oil funds that are frozen because of US sanctions.

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