U.S. defense officials are declining to assign responsibility for an attack on a major air base in western Iraq, days after 10 rockets slammed into the compound that houses American and coalition troops.
But the officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, warn Washington’s cautious approach should not be interpreted by anyone as weakness.
“The message to those that that that would carry out such a such an attack is that, you know, expect us to do what's necessary to defend ourselves,” Austin said in an interview set to air Sunday on ABC News.
“We’ll strike if we, if that’s what we think we need to do at a time and place of our own choosing,” he added.
U.S. defense officials said late Thursday that the rocket attack on the al-Asad air base, launched from multiple positions east of the compound, did only minor damage.
No direct hits
"We assess that C-RAM [a defensive system designed to counter rocket and artillery attacks] effectively engaged four of the 10 rockets that impacted the base,” Commander Jessica McNulty, a Pentagon spokesperson, told VOA on Thursday.
“None of the rockets made direct hits on any structure or vehicle,” she added. “There was some minor shrapnel damage that will not have any impact on operations.”
Previously, officials said one U.S. contractor died after suffering a heart attack while rushing to take shelter.
Questioned about the pace of the investigation, which is being led by Iraqi security forces, Pentagon officials urged patience.
“I just simply will not get ahead of the process,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters late Friday. “Our Iraqi partners are investigating at al-Asad. We want to let them do their work.”
Series of attacks
Wednesday’s incident at al-Asad was the latest in a series of rocket attacks on bases in Iraq that house U.S. and coalition forces, most of which have been blamed on Iran-backed militias. It also came less than a week after U.S. President Joe Biden ordered an airstrike against a compound in eastern Syria, which U.S. officials said the militias had used to facilitate those attacks.
At the time, Biden said the strike was meant as a warning to Iran that it “can't act with impunity.”
The U.S. has blamed some of the previous rocket attacks on two Iran-backed militias —Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Officials said last week’s strike was designed to make it more difficult for either group to carry out additional attacks.
Despite U.S. threats to retaliate, several Iraqi groups have praised the rocket attacks.
In a statement Thursday, a group calling itself the Coordinating Commission for the Iraqi Resistance said violence was justified to drive out the American forces.
"The resistance sees confrontation as the only option that guarantees the freedom, dignity and pride of this country,” the group said in a statement translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based group monitoring extremist activity globally.
Kataib Hezbollah also celebrated the attack on al-Asad.
“We congratulate the Iraqi resistance for the heroic operation on the base of evil in Ayn al-Asad,” Abu Ali al-Aksari, a security official, said in a statement issued Wednesday.
At the Pentagon Friday, Kirby warned the Iranian-backed militias against becoming overconfident.
“Nobody wants to see this escalate," Kirby said. “But we have an obligation to protect our people.”
Al-Asad air base has been attacked before. Iran itself targeted the base last year in a retaliatory strike for the U.S. killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani.