American troops who survived Iran’s retaliatory missile attack on Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq last year say only “luck” helped them ride out the strike.
On 8 January 2020, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) targeted the American airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, home to 2,000 US troops and scores of aircraft, with a barrage of missiles in retaliation for the assassination of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani five days earlier.
The American strike, which came on then-US President Donald Trump’s direct orders, killed the top Iranian anti-terror commander – who was in Baghdad on an official visit – and his Iraqi trenchmate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – better known by the Arabic word Hashd al-Sha’abi.
Iran then retaliated by firing dozens of ballistic missiles, each carrying a warhead weighing more than 1,000 pounds, at Ain al-Assad air base, as well as another US air base in Erbil, declaring that the attacks were part of its promised “tough revenge” for the assassination of General Soleimani.
In an exclusive interview to be fully aired on CBS News on Sunday, General Frank McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command, said, “It was an attack certainly like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced.”
McKenzie said the Iranian missiles were “accurate” and “they hit pretty much where they wanted to hit.”
Pointing to events ahead of the retaliatory strikes, the American commander claimed that the US intelligence had detected Iran’s preparations for the missile attack and saved enough time to evacuate the base of 1,000 troops and 50 aircraft.
“I think we might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and we’d have lost 100 to 150 US personnel” without the evacuation, McKenzie said.
Top Iranian military officials, however, have said they notified the Americans of the coming attack in advance, because Tehran did not want to kill US soldiers but sought to send a message.
For those involved in the assassination, the Islamic Republic has said several times that a befitting retaliation will come in due time.
US Army Major Alan Johnson also told CBS News that there was no defense against the Iranian missiles for the American troops who had remained at the base except to take cover.
Johnson described cramming roughly 40 people into a bunker designed to protect just ten people from much smaller munitions.
“We start heading down maybe 135 meters, make it about a third of the way there, the Big Voice we call it, clicks in, ‘Incoming, incoming, take cover, take cover, take cover.’ I’ve got another football field to run. I don’t know when this next missile’s going to hit,” Johnson said in the interview, adding that the missiles sounded “like a freight train going by you.”
Acknowledging that more than 100 of the US troops had been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury from the blasts in Ain al-Assad air base, Johnson said he still has headaches, ringing in his ears and nightmares.
“Luck. The only thing I can actually come up with is that hand of God protected us. Because, really, nobody should have lived through this,” Johnson underlined.
On February 28, the 60 Minutes program on CBS News is also to release for the first time drone footage of ballistic missiles that ripped through the US airbase.
According to the US Defense Department, more than 100 American forces suffered “traumatic brain injuries” during the counterstrike on the US base. The IRGC, however, says Washington uses the term to mask the number of the Americans who perished during the retaliation.
Iran has described the missile attack on Ain al-Assad air base as a “first slap.”
Iraqi lawmakers approved a bill two days after the attack, demanding the withdrawal of all foreign military forces led by the United States from the country.
General Soleimani and his Iraqi trenchmate were both admired by Muslim nations for eliminating the US-sponsored Daesh Takfiri terrorist group in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
The US assassination drew a wave of condemnation from officials and movements throughout the world. It also triggered huge public protests across the region.
Head of the Iranian Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights Ali Baqeri-Kani announced on December 28 last year that the country had identified and was prosecuting 48 individuals for masterminding and conducting General Soleimani’s assassination.