US, Iran step back from the brink; region still on edge

US and Iran hit pause as lawmakers spar on ‘imminence’

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war Wednesday, as President Donald Trump indicated he would not respond militarily after no one was harmed in Iran’s missile strike on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

On Wednesday morning, Trump said Iran appeared to be “standing down" following strikes. The Iranian strikes had come days after Trump authorized the targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Trump speaks on Iran conflict

Wednesday afternoon, two rockets landed inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, home of the US Embassy in Iraq, according to CNN. CNN also says that the Iraqi joint military command told the news organization in Baghdad that “two Katyusha rockets landed inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. No reports of casualties.” The incident took place just after midnight local time.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set a House vote for Thursday on limiting President Donald Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran. She scheduled the vote after Iran retaliated by firing missiles at two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. Her announcement also came shortly after administration officials briefed lawmakers on Iran but were criticized by Democrats for being vague.

The proposal seems certain to draw strong Republican opposition. The proposal comes as Democratic criticism of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general continues to intensify.

Pelosi says last week’s drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani was “provocative and disproportionate."

Trump said Americans should be “extremely grateful and happy” with the outcome.

Speaking from the White House, Trump announced that the U.S. will immediately place new sanctions on Iran “until Iran changes its behavior.”

The president also demanded that NATO get much more involved in the Middle East, and he defended his targeted killing last week of Soleimani.

It was Iran’s most brazen assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Iran’s missile strikes were in retaliation for last week’s American drone strike that killed Soleimani, Iran’s top general.

Iran appeared to have calibrated its attack to avoid stoking further U.S. retaliation, giving some early warning to its Iraqi allies to avoid casualties.

It was a signal that both sides were stepping away from an immediate spiral of more direct exchanges that could throw the Middle East into great turmoil.

Top Senate Democrats are citing “deep concern” about the lack of information coming from the Trump administration about the Iran operation. They say they want Defense Department officials to provide “regular briefings and documents” to Congress.

U.S. troops are located in potential harm's way in several Middle Eastern nations.
U.S. troops are located in potential harm's way in several Middle Eastern nations. (Source: CNN)

The Iraqi military said Wednesday there were no casualties among its troops.

In an address to the nation hours after the strikes, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “we slapped them (Americans) on the face last night” with a missile strike “but military action is not enough.”

Khamenei added that the “corrupt presence of the U.S. in the region should come to an end," saying it has caused war, division and destruction. He also invoked the virtues of Soleimani, saying he was a “great, brave warrior” and “dear friend to us.” Huge crowds in Iran have mourned the general’s death.

Late Tuesday, Trump tweeted “All is well!" in response to the missile strikes. He added that casualty and damage assessments were ongoing but said, “So far, so good!”

U.S. officials had been braced for Iran to respond to the killing of Soleimani.

The Iraqi military said in a statement that Iran’s attack lasted half an hour, starting at 1:45 a.m. local time.

The statement said 22 missiles were fired. Seventeen missiles hit Ain al-Asad air base, including two that did not explode in the Hitan area west of the town of Hit. Five other missiles hit the northern region of Irbil.

It’s a major escalation between the U.S. and Iran, longtime foes, and there are worries the two nations are now close to war. But there are some indications that there would not be further retaliation on either side, at least in the short term.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the attack “proportionate measures in self-defense.”

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he tweeted.

The U.S. said Tuesday it would not issue Zarif a visa to travel to the United Nations later this week, contending there was not enough time to process the request. He responded on Twitter to the ban, calling it a violation of the 1947 UNHQ Agreement.

In response to the tensions, about 2,500 Marines from Camp LeJeune have been redeployed to the Mediterranean, WITN reported.

U.S. embassies and consulates from Asia to Africa and Europe have issued security alerts for Americans, and commercial airlines have rerouted flights crossing the Middle East to avoid possible danger amid the escalating tensions.

Jumbled schedules could effect as many as 15,000 passengers per day, lengthen flight times by an average of 30 to 90 minutes, and severely bruise the bottom line for airlines, industry analysts said.

Australian carrier Qantas says it’s altering its London to Perth, Australia, routes to avoid Iran and Iraq airspace until further notice. Malaysia Airlines says that “due to recent events,” its planes would avoid Iranian airspace. Singapore Airlines also says its flights to Europe would avoid Iran. The Russian aviation agency also recommended all Russian airlines to avoid flying over Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred American pilots and carriers from flying in areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace, warning of the “potential for miscalculation or mis-identification" for civilian aircraft.

Such restrictions are often precautionary in nature to prevent civilian aircraft from being confused for ones engaged in armed conflict.

Oil prices have climbed and global stock markets have sunk in response to the military actions. Crude prices spiked more than $3 before retreating, and market benchmarks in London, Frankfurt, Shanghai and Tokyo all retreated.

A Ukrainian commercial airliner that took off Wednesday from Tehran crashed, killing the 167 passengers and nine crew members on board. However, authorities said the crash is suspected to have been caused by mechanical issues.

Soleimani was buried in his hometown of Kerman in southeastern Iran, hours after the missile attack. A stampede at his funeral Tuesday killed 56 people and injured 213 others. There was no information as to what had set off the stampede.

Trump ordered the Jan. 2 strike against Soleimani after the death of an American contractor in Iraq. He contended Tuesday that his decision saved American lives and that members of Congress would be briefed soon on what led to the attack.

Iran stated after Soleimani’s death it will no longer honor any of the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord Trump withdrew from in May 2018.

The European Union promised Wednesday it “will spare no efforts” in its attempts to keep the deal alive.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. Gray Media Group, Inc. contributed to this report. All rights reserved.