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The Views From U.S. Troops Still Stationed At Bombed Air Base In Iraq


Now to Iraq, where we're going to hear from U.S. troops on the base attacked by Iran last week. Iran fired missiles at the base after the U.S. killed an Iranian general in a drone strike in Baghdad. There's some 5000 U.S. forces in Iraq, and the U.S. seems set on keeping them there despite the Iraqi government's calls for them to leave.

NPR's Jane Arraf was among the journalists taken to Ain al-Asad airbase.


UNIDENTIFIED US AIRMAN: Another one. Another one.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: A U.S. airman took this video while Iranian missiles slammed into the base. With U.S. intelligence picking up general warnings of a threat hours before, there were no casualties, but there was damage and the shock of being plunged into a new level of threat. A week later, the U.S. military was still clearing up the debris of demolished buildings, and U.S. troops were still coming to grips with having survived the kind of attack they never thought they'd see.

Army 1st Sgt. Westley Kilpatrick's team was flying drones during the attack.

1ST SGT WESTLEY KILPATRICK: We didn't know what was coming. We just knew something was coming, so we figured as many eyes we could get in the sky, we would do that and see if we could stop whatever it was before it came to the base. Didn't expect it to be a missile.

ARRAF: At least 10 missiles slammed into the base, one of them a direct hit on the metal trailers where troops normally would have been sleeping. I walk past a row of other housing units incinerated in the blast.

Some of the metal is hanging in strips from what used to be the roof. It's swinging in the breeze. Everywhere there's blackened metal and a huge crater at least 10 feet deep where the rocket hit.

The base, like others in Iraq, is regularly targeted by small rockets fired by Iran-backed militias. Kilpatrick says the impact of these much larger missiles literally knocked him off his feet.

KILPATRICK: I went running back to my guys and told them, you know, hey, start shutting the aircraft down. Let's get to shelter. This is a lot worse than we thought it was going to be. So I expected, you know, rockets, you know, complex attack, you know, someone storming the gate kind of thing.

ARRAF: The U.S. doesn't have anti-ballistic missile batteries in Iraq. Its mission here is to help Iraq fight ISIS, not counter Iranian missiles. But the U.S. killing of Iran's top general and a senior Iraqi commander in the drone strike two weeks ago changed all that. Senior Airman Mary Katherine Mulholland didn't expect to ever experience a ballistic missile strike when she was deployed with the National Guard. She's a veterinary student from Kentucky. Here she does airfield security.

MARY KATHERINE MULHOLLAND: This is what I take with me everywhere.

ARRAF: What is it?

MULHOLLAND: This is an M4 rifle with a 203 grenade launcher attached to it. So...

ARRAF: Mulholland was squeezed into a small concrete bunker with nine other people for more than two hours during the strike.

MULHOLLAND: Some of us were laying on top of the other - very, very tight squeeze. My team, we have to work as well. So when we thought a volley was over, we would go out of the bunker and just kind of look around, assess damage. And then when we'd hear another volley was coming in, we would just bail for the shelter again.

ARRAF: In response to the killing of Soleimani and earlier U.S. attacks on Iran-backed militias that killed more than 25 Iraqi fighters, the Iraqi government has called for U.S. forces to leave, but it hasn't set that process in motion yet. The U.S. is determined to stay. And President Trump has threatened Iraq with sanctions if it follows through, and the U.S. military, which had suspended all anti-ISIS operations with Iraqi forces, plans to resume them again once tension dies down. But troops here say they're aware that the missile strike they lived through is the beginning of a new, more uncertain era for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, at the Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.