We may never know the full extent of US casualties from Iran's retaliatory missile attack on 8 January against two Iraqi air bases hosting US troops but for now at least, more information is gradually starting to surface, contradicting statements by President Donald Trump that "No Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties." It is reasonable to be sceptical of attempts to downplay and disregard any serious casualties or fatalities from the attacks, dubbed "Operation Martyr Soleimani" after the assassinated Iranian General, Qassem Soleimani, which prompted Iran's "proportionate" response.
From the immediate aftermath, Iranian media outlets claimed that there were at least 80 US fatalities and up to 200 wounded based on "informed sources", which should come as no surprise given the vast influence Iran commands in neighbouring Iraq, with its spies infiltrating every aspect of Iraqi political life, according to leaked intelligence reports in November last year. "All of the Iraqi Army's intelligence — consider it yours," was a message Lieutenant General Hatem Al-Maksusi conveyed to Tehran. CNN initially reported that there were only casualties among Iraqi personnel but did not continue with this angle on the story.
It would only emerge just over a week later that the Pentagon acknowledged that 11 US soldiers were injured in the incident, having been flown to medical facilities in Germany and Kuwait for screening of "possible brain injuries" allegedly after experiencing concussion. It has been suggested that the Pentagon sat on this information for political purposes, although this has been denied and it has insisted it was unaware of the numbers until a week after the attack.
Every week a new group of US soldiers injuries revealed
More U.S. troops have been flown out of Iraq to Germany for 'potential concussion injuries' from the Iranian missile attack of Jan. 8, U.S. defence officials said Tuesday.https://t.co/f7RN9VEzZVhttps://t.co/ypT7XPyP6F
— Elijah J. Magnier (@ejmalrai) January 22, 2020
At the time of writing, there have been further reports of additional US soldiers being transferred to Germany. On Wednesday, Trump was criticised by some observers for downplaying the seriousness of the brain injuries, telling reporters at Davos: "I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report it is not very serious."
When asked about the 11 U.S. servicemen injured in the Iran airstrikes, President Trump told @weijia he didn't "consider them serious injuries relative to other injuries I've seen." https://t.co/anmIdCHO6a pic.twitter.com/boSjvDujCS
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 22, 2020
What has not made it to corporate news however, was the Kuwaiti newspaper report on Sunday from Al-Qabas that 16 US soldiers were flown to a hospital at a Kuwaiti air base, some reportedly fatally wounded, suffering "severe burns" and some with shrapnel wounds. The reported added that the injured soldiers underwent surgery and are being kept in intensive care.
The Ayn Al-Assad air base was singled out in particular not only due to the fact that it hosts the highest number of US troops in the country and was even visited by Trump after Christmas 2018 as his first visit to combat troops – (a delayed presidential tradition which drew criticism from some corners), but also because that is where Reaper drones were based, the same used to kill Soleimani near Baghdad airport.
Critically, in spite of the advanced warning via the Iraqi authorities, none of the 15 ballistic missiles were picked up by US air defence systems, precisely because there were no "interception options", rendering the base vulnerable to the barrage of missiles. Even if Patriot defence systems were present, they would not have protected the base as they have proven not to work following the Saudi Aramco attacks last year, "a lemon of a missile defense system" according to Foreign Policy. The Saddam-era bunkers the personnel sought refuge in would have offered little protection from the missiles, reported CNN, but then again, the Iranians did not intend to target the soldiers.
Ali Hajizadeh, IRGC aerospace commander:
– The US lie about having no casualties. If they are truthful, we call on them to open up Ain al-Assad base to scrutiny.
– 9 planes transported US casualties to the US, Jordan & some Iraqi hospitals too pic.twitter.com/8Fz4EVhBZP
— Ibn Riad – ابن رياض (@IbnRiad) January 9, 2020
A day after Iran's response, a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Ali Hajizadeh, made it clear during a press conference that Iran had not directly sought to kill American soldiers, but did state that "tens of US troops have likely been killed and wounded and were transferred to Israel and Jordan on 9 sorties of C-130 flights."
Hajizadeh added that ,had Iran intended to kill the American troops, it could have planned high casualty operations to kill 500 US soldiers in the first phase with 4,000 to 5,000 others in the second and third phases. He also claimed some 104 targets belonging to the US and its allies have been identified across the region, should the US "make any mistake again". It is worth noting that the initial strikes are not to be interpreted as the full response, rather Iran will seek to play the long-game in exacting its "Hard Revenge", with the strategic goal being the withdrawal of the US from the region.
One article last week on Citizen Truth goes as far as to claim 143 military personnel were killed, reiterating that all casualties taken aboard nine separate flights, apparently obtaining confirmation from officials in Tehran that "further evidence will soon be made public".
It may well be that in downplaying or sitting on facts, it provides a means to de-escalate the situation, as the hawks in Trump's administration and certain sections of the American public would consider inaction by the president to US deaths or indeed injuries to be a sign of weakness and may prove harmful to Trump's re-election bid.
We have 2 US soldiers killed in Germany, 2 in Afghanistan and…..
People are asking if Trump is trying to spread those service personnel killed in Ayn al-Assad to cover his lie after announcing 11 injured in Iran attack a week later?https://t.co/yCWelCJqPM v @TheLocalGermany
— Elijah J. Magnier (@ejmalrai) January 18, 2020
Some have speculated that the US government will instead opt for a safer approach in drip-feeding unrelated fatalities and injuries over an extended period.
As with the information war and propaganda, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle between Iranian and American narratives. Hinting towards further discoveries, the US Central Command said in a statement on Tuesday that "it is possible additional injuries may be identified in the future." It will serve as a tactical set-back to Washington, however it is clear that more attacks will occur, not only as part of Iran's retaliation, but especially from Iraqi resistance factions, now that the US has reverted back to an occupying force there.
As the Tehran Times pointed out, it is a great disaster that not only undermines America's reputation in the region further but will be an alarm for Trump's political future to remind him of former President Jimmy Carter's fate more than ever.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.