Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. strikes Iran-backed militias in Iraq after troops are wounded in drone attack

Fighters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) paramilitaries ride in vehicles moving in a convoy during Tuesday’s funeral of Hassan Hammadi al-Amiri in Baghdad. Al-Amiri was a member of the group Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the factions of the PMF, after he was killed in a U.S. airstrike.  (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP)
By Niha Masih </p><p>and Mustafa Salim Washington Post

U.S. forces launched retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq on Monday after a drone attack that injured three service members, the Pentagon said, the latest response to dozens of aerial assaults against U.S. personnel in the Middle East that the Defense Department has been unable to curtail.

American forces launched airstrikes against three facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups linked to Iran, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement, in response to an attack on U.S. personnel stationed at Irbil air base that left one U.S. service member critically injured.

The militant attack was launched by a one-way explosive drone, a U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The retaliatory strikes “likely killed a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. There were “no indications that any civilian lives were affected,” the statement said.

U.S. troops stationed at bases in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 100 times by Iranian-backed militias since Oct. 17, according to Pentagon data, in what those groups have said is a response to U.S. support for Israel and its ground operation in Gaza. The U.S. airstrikes launched Monday were “intended to disrupt and degrade capabilities of the Iran-aligned militia groups directly responsible,” Austin said. However, similar responses have not weakened the ability of militants to hit U.S. installations at will.

Iranian-backed militias continued their attacks into Tuesday. A U.S. destroyer and fighter jets shot down 12 one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles and two land-attack cruise missiles in the southern Red Sea, Central Command said, all of which were fired in a 10-hour period by Houthi fighters in Yemen. The attacks and shoot-downs did not cause damage to ships or injuries, the command said.

The Biden administration has been wary of taking a more aggressive approach, with officials citing concern that if Iran is more directly confronted, it could widen the regional conflagration.

“While we do not seek to escalate conflict in the region, we are committed and fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities,” Austin said in the statement.

The Pentagon has defended the response as “deliberate,” and said most of the attacks on U.S. troops are off-target – occasionally damaging infrastructure and leading to minor injuries, if any. However, the critical injury to a U.S. service member in Monday’s attack appears to be the most serious reported since the attacks sharply rose in October. About 3,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq and Syria to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State extremist group. Iran has long backed militias in an effort to dislodge the U.S. presence in the region.

“The President places no higher priority than the protection of American personnel serving in harm’s way,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing should these attacks continue.”

Other operations in the Middle East have challenged the administration’s assertion that Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza has not triggered a larger conflict.

Israel killed a high-ranking Iranian general in an airstrike in Damascus, Syria, on Monday, the Associated Press reported, citing reports by Iranian state media. Turkey launched strikes into Syria and Iraq, attacking Kurdish fighters in retaliation for the deaths of Turkish soldiers over the weekend. Houthi militants backed by Iran have launched brazen attacks in the Red Sea, including the shoot-down of a U.S. drone and the hijacking of a commercial ship. Those incidents and others prompted the United States and partners to reinforce a multinational naval task force to protect ships transiting the Suez Canal and operating in waters around the eastern Arabian Peninsula.

A senior Kataib Hezbollah official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the group has launched operations against American forces in Iraq partly because of the United States’ support for Israel in its war with Hamas, and partly because the group considers the U.S. presence in Iraq an “occupation.”

“Our operations will continue until the departure of the last American soldier,” the official said.

In a statement Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani condemned the drone attack and the U.S. response, which he said killed one Iraqi service member and injured 18 others, including civilians.

“This constitutes a clear hostile act. It runs counter to the pursuit of enduring mutual interests in establishing security and stability, and it opposes the declared intention of the American side to enhance relations with Iraq,” he said.