AIN AL-ASAD, Iraq -U.S. commanders at the Iraqi military base targeted last week by Iranian missiles said Monday they believe the attack was intended to kill American personnel, an act that could have pushed the two powers closer to outright war.
On a visit to the sprawling Ain al-Asad air base in the Iraqi province of Anbar, reporters saw deep craters and the crumpled wreckage of living quarters and a helicopter launch site. The attack lasted more than an hour and a half, commanders said, with explosions illuminating the landscape for miles.
With tensions between the United States and Iran reaching a boiling point, the base had already been on high alert, expecting the sorts of rocket attacks that have targeted U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces across Iraq for months. The base hosts some 2,000 troops, 1,500 of them from the U.S.-led coalition.
But at 11 p.m. Jan. 7, another call came in, military officials recounted. They were to expect an unprecedented attack from neighboring Iran on U.S. ground forces involving ballistic missiles.
For the military officials on the base, this was seen as a worst-case scenario, forcing a swiftly planned dispersal of troops among cramped shelters, watch towers and bunkers built deep underground by Saddam Hussein's army, according to Lt. Col. Tim Garland, Commander of Task Force Jazeera and one of the most senior officials on the base that day.
"These were designed and organized to inflict as many casualties as possible," he said.
In the hours that followed, Iran described the attacks as “harsh revenge,” which had killed dozens. Within a day, however, U.S. and Iraqi officials were reporting that nobody had been hurt.
Accounts from inside the Trump administration have suggested that the lack of casualties was a crucial factor in the president's decision not to escalate further. "All is well!" he posted in a tweet hours after the attack.
But across Ain al-Asad, the testimony of witnesses to the attack and damage to several areas appeared to indicate that the absence of casualties could have been a function of luck, not design.
In the early hours of Jan. 8, 1 a.m. passed and the predicted time for the attack came and went, leaving military officials to wonder whether it had been a false alarm. Then, minutes before 1:30, an alarm spread. Radars indicated that the first ballistic missile strike was imminent. Loudspeakers blared warnings, and the base braced for impact.
Most military personnel were still in their shelters as the sun rose, but with fears of a potential ground incursion swirling, others had stayed out in the open all night, manning the perimeter and checking for casualties as the attack continued, officials said.
"Right before the first wave began, it was quiet, but then over the radio we heard a crackle and 'incoming, incoming,' " said First Lt. Charles Duncan, 25, standing amid the charred and twisted remnants of another soldier's living space. "In those seconds, we just waited."
In interviews with more than a dozen military personnel who experienced the attacks, soldiers described feeling the air turn warm as light filled the night sky and an explosion ripped through the air.
Inside some bunkers, the impact dragged the door frames deeper into the ground. Prefabricated buildings were twisted into unrecognizable carcasses of metal. At least two soldiers were thrown through the window of a meters-high tower.
The commander overseeing airfield operations, Lt. Col. Staci Coleman, described the lack of casualties as “miraculous.”