US conducts airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against Iranian-backed militias

WASHINGTON – The United States carried out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against two Iranian-backed militias that the Pentagon said were carrying out drone attacks against American troops.

The Pentagon said operational and weapons storage facilities were struck near the Syrian-Iraqi border at three locations it said were used by the Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militias .

“The United States has taken necessary, appropriate and deliberate steps designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the action, which occurred around 6 p.m. Eastern time Sunday, or early Monday in the area.

The action was President Biden’s second use of force in the region. In February, he ordered F-15E airstrikes in response to a rocket attack on the US coalition in Erbil, Iraq.

“The United States has taken necessary, appropriate and deliberate steps to limit the risk of escalation …”

– Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby

In the February episode, Mr Biden chose the more conservative option presented to him by military commanders, leading some observers to question whether this approach would be sufficient to deter further attacks by Shiite militias sponsored by Iran.

In recent months, the United States has become increasingly concerned that these militia groups were pursuing more sophisticated means of attacking American forces using unmanned drones, the Pentagon said.

The United States, along with other Western countries, has a small troop strength in Iraq to train and mentor the Iraqi military, which is still grappling with the remnants of the Islamic State force that has captured Mosul and other cities in 2014, but was defeated by the Americans. -directed coalition.

Mr Biden, after returning Sunday night to the White House from a weekend at Camp David, did not respond to questions shouted by reporters about the airstrikes.

A US official said the airstrikes were carried out by Air Force F-15s and F-16s using precision guided munitions. All three targets, two in Syria and one in Iraq, were hit, the official said.

The airstrikes, more extensive than that of February, came in response to at least five militia drone attacks directed against US forces in Iraq since April, the US official said.

Of particular concern was raised by a June 9 militia attack with drones loaded with explosives on a complex known as the Baghdad Diplomatic Service Center, near the Baghdad airport. It took place as several US contractors and other staff ate, suggesting to military officials that it was programmed to cause casualties. The attack sparked a fire and a number of U.S. contractors and other staff were treated for smoke inhalation, State Department officials said at the time.

The new US military action comes at a delicate time in the Biden administration’s relationship with Tehran. US negotiators tried to revive in talks in Vienna the 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program. Iran also elected a tough new president, Ebrahim Raisi, in June in a vote the US State Department called “pre-fabricated.”

In February, the Biden administration sent a confidential message to Tehran after its airstrike, a US official said at the time. U.S. officials did not provide details of the communication, but it came as the Biden administration publicly declared that it wanted to deter attacks by Shiite militias without escalating the conflict into a broader confrontation with Iran. A US official said a similar message would be sent this time around.

Kata’ib Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed group in Iraq that the United States says has long been organizing attacks on American forces. The United States has accused the other targeted group, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, of launching the February rocket at Erbil, and targeting sites associated with the group in this month’s airstrike.

Areas near the Iraqi-Syrian border hit in the latest action have militia weapons storage facilities, a former US military official said, and are close to a main road that Iran uses to send weapons. arms to proxy groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

“There is a strong consensus within the US and Iraqi intelligence communities that Kata’ib Hezbollah is the primary operator of sophisticated drones,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

According to his tally, he added, there have been at least eight drone attacks directed against US forces in Iraq since April 14.

Mr. Knights noted that the Trump administration carried out airstrikes on militia rocket storage and testing facilities in March 2020.

“This time the United States has given similar treatment to the militia drone industry,” he said. “But the 2020 airstrikes did not stop the rocket attacks, and it is likely that these strikes will not stop the drone attacks either.”

Write to Michael R. Gordon at [email protected]

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