Estonian officer in Iraq: We were protected in the field

U.S. soldiers stand at the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province.

PHOTO: John Davison / Reuters / Scanpix

When Iranian ballistic missiles hit the Ayn al Asad Airbase in Iraq on the night of January 8, Estonia’s team of six instructors were located a few kilometers from the base. It became clear by sunrise that Estonians’ residential and work-related structures had survived the attack while those of the Americans hadn’t.

“I cannot discuss the exact location, but we were several kilometers away during the attack. It was temporary ground where favorable terrain offered good protection and it was easy to ensure our safety,” said Cpt. Toomas Rein, head of the Estonian team of instructors. The team returned to Estonia last Wednesday.

Rein recalled that during the weeks before the attack, they had little reason to believe the security situation could seriously deteriorate. One smaller and largely inaccurate indirect fire attack had taken place near the base in January.

When a U.S. drone strike killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani on January 3, nothing changed at the al Asad base at first. “The only thing that changed was a closer eye kept on the media. There was nothing to do other than wait,” Rein said.

The Estonians did not have an Iraqi unit to train to guard the border at the time. The incoming unit called and said they would wait for the situation to calm down before coming in.

Information to suggest the base could be hit by a missile strike reached Estonians in the evening of January 8. Ballistic missiles hit the base at 1.34 a.m. Iran fired 15 missiles around 10 of which hit al Asad.

Intelligence on the money

While the base would normally have had 2,500 soldiers, most were evacuated thanks to early warning and intelligence information by 11 p.m. Only U.S. security teams stayed behind to make sure Iran’s supporters wouldn’t try to storm the base after the missile attack. They were kept company by drone pilots tasked with monitoring the situation from the air.

The attack hit some base structures, including the drone pilots’ tent, and left craters a few meters deep in the ground. Eleven U.S. soldiers suffered contusions.

“Our (Estonians’ – O. K.) work and residential environment was not damaged. However, we haven’t been told whether and what type of equipment was lost,” Rein said. The team leader said that even if missiles had been aimed at living quarters, the damage would likely have been minimal. “There are defensive structures close to where we live and work that would likely have prevented total destruction.”

Estonia prepared to continue

Most allied soldiers have been moved to Kuwait, with cleanup efforts underway in al Asad. Rein said that the allies believe that another similar attack is rather unlikely.

“It cannot be ruled out, but I believe it has been understood as a single retaliation that needed to happen,” the team leader said. “Our unit was prepared to continue the training mission.”

Press officer for the Headquarters of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Igor Ljapin said that the next Estonian training team is ready to depart for Iraq as soon as they have confirmation the allies will stay there. “Mainly, the Iraqi government needs to tell the Americans that they need the mission to continue,” Ljapin said. The coalition’s command must also determine whether the situation is safe enough to continue the mission.