The Pentagon’s top military adviser believes that when Iran launched missiles at two Iraqi coalition bases on Tuesday night, they were looking for casualties.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that it’s his assessment Iran missed its intended targets at the Al Asad and Erbil air bases, contradicting reports that the victimless strike was meant to make a point but offer Iran a chance to deescalate tensions.
“Bottom line is, in my professional assessment, at Al Asad ... the points of impact were close enough to personnel and equipment and so on and so forth ― I believe, based on what I saw and what I know, that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and aircraft, and to kill personnel,” he said.
Milley added that it was his own personnel assessment, and that intelligence analysts are doing their own investigation now.
Iran launched 16 rockets at Al Asad and Erbil, 11 of which hit Al Asad, while one landed outside of Erbil and four failed in flight, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters.
An American helicopter was damaged in the strike, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Military Times. The rest was structural, Esper said, including taxiways, tents and a parking lot.
Esper added that while he shares Milley’s initial assessment, he will wait on the analysis to make a true determination.
“All I can tell you is, factually, they landed at certain points in a populated camp and they did certain amounts of damage, and there were no casualties,” Milley said. “Why there were no casualties? In my estimation, from what I know now, I think it has more to do with the defensive techniques that our forces used as opposed to intent.”
And if Iran intended to kill coalition forces and missed the mark, does that mean they have unfinished business?
“I think it’s perhaps too early to tell,” Milley said.
The chairman’s comments contradicted reports of administration officials who believe that Iran planned to cause only structural damage in its retaliation for the drone strike that killed a top military leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, at the Baghdad airport on Thursday.
In an address Wednesday, President Trump declared that Iran is standing down after Tuesday’s attack. Also on Wednesday, Muqtada al-Sadr, a notorious Shia cleric and Iraqi politician, issued a message declaring the Iran crisis over.
However, the situation is fluid. Shortly before Esper spoke with reporters, the Iraqi security forces issued a Tweet saying two Katyusha rockets landed inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, with no casualties.
Despite the apparent detente, Esper said that there are no immediate plans to bring 5,000 soldiers deployed to the Middle East last week as part of the Global Response Force plan.
“We’re still in a tense period, if you will. Troops will remain or continue to be re-positioned based on threats," he said. "While we want to give them some predictability, it’s too hard to say how long this will last at this point in time.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.