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Mideast on alert after Iran fires missiles at U.S. forces

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Image: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in the holy city of Qom on Wednesday.   -   Copyright  AP
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TEL AVIV — Countries across the Middle East were on alert Wednesday after Iran fired missiles at bases housing American forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of a top general.The scramble to contain the violence came amid a significant worsening of tensions in the volatile region.Turkey announcedthat Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu would visit Iraq on Thursday to try and defuse the situation.The visit comes "within the context of our intensified diplomatic efforts to alleviate the escalated tension," it added.Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also swiftly weighed in, warning that anyone who tried to attack Israel would suffer an "overwhelming blow.""Israel stands completely behind the U.S., America has no better friend than Israel and Israel has no better friend," Netanyahu, a close ally of President Trump's, told a conference in Jerusalem. "Iran wants to choke us and eliminate us. We stand firmly."Some in Israel consider Iran an existential threat. Tehran usually refers to Israel as the Zionist state and describes regional countries and other forces opposed to it and the United States as a "resistance" front.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in the holy city of Qom on Wednesday.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in the holy city of Qom on Wednesday.AP

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the overnight missile strikes a "slap in the face" to the U.S. and not sufficient retaliation forthe killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.Meanwhile, various Western governments warned citizens and personnel in the region to remain vigilant. The U.S. embassy in Jordan advised government personnelto avoid non-essential movements outside the home Wednesday, including keeping children home from school.The French Foreign Ministry updated its advice to citizens in Israel, advising them to avoid traveling near the border with Lebanon and Syria, and for those north of Haifa and Nazareth to exercise caution.Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab urged restraint."We urge Iran not to repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, and instead to pursue urgent de-escalation," he said. "A war in the Middle East would only benefit Daesh and other terrorist groups."One big question mark was how President Donald Trump would respond.He tweetedover the weekend that if Iran retaliated for Soleimani's killing it would face U.S. attacks on 52 targets, symbolizing the number of hostages held by Iran in 1979, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held in the country for 444 days.But on Tuesday night he tweeted that "all is well" after Iran launched the missiles at U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.

Isreali Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Isreali Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuMenahem Kahana

"Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!" the president tweeted.He also said he would make a statement Wednesday morning.The question posed by observers was what the Trump administration would do next, and what repercussions that might have for U.S. allies in the region including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."This has the hallmarks of unintended escalation, the killing of Soleimani and now with the retaliation by Iran, we need to see what happens next," said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent's University in London."Whether the U.S. says, 'Fair enough, we can absorb this attack,' and tries to stop it here, or if it goes the Donald Trump way of threatening 52 cultural targets starting a tit for tat."The recent escalation kicked off when aU.S. defense contractor was killedin a rocket attack in northern Iraq on Dec. 27. Two days later, the U.S. launched deadly airstrikes on weapons depots in Iraq and Syria that the U.S. said were linked to an Iran-backed Shiite militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah. At least 25 fighters were killed in the strikes.

Iranian mourners during the funeral processions for general Qassem Soleimani in his hometown of Kerman on Tuesday.
Iranian mourners during the funeral processions for general Qassem Soleimani in his hometown of Kerman on Tuesday. Atta Kenare

Supporters of the Iran-backed militia then attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdadand the U.S. retaliated with a drone strike that killed Soleimani, who Washington blamed for a spate of attacks, including the one that killed the U.S. contractor.Soleimani is also credited with having developed Iran's network of proxies throughout the region — including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran-backed militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad groups in the Gaza Strip — that pose a threat to the U.S. or its regional allies.Part of the issue, said regional analysts, was the unpredictability of the American presidentand the fact that the number of casualties and injured as a result of the overnight attack remained unclear."The problem with Trump is that it's basically impossible to know what he does next," said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.