The United States begins air strikes on militias in Iraq and Syria

President Joe Biden greets service members after arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The United States begins air strikes on militias in Iraq and Syria

The U.S. begins strikes on militias in Iraq and Syria in response to a deadly drone attack, officials tell A.P.

  The U.S. military launched an air strike on dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias on Friday, the first retaliation for a drone strike that killed three American soldiers in Jordan last weekend, officials with The Associated Press said.

President Joe Biden and other senior U.S. leaders have warned for days that the United States will respond to the militias, making clear that it will not be just a single strike but a "gradual response" over time. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations that have not yet been announced.

The initial strikes by manned and uncrewed aircraft hit the command and control headquarters, the ammunition depot, and other facilities. It came just hours after Biden and senior defense leaders joined grieving families to watch the remains of the three Army reservists be returned to the United States at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

It needed to be made clear what the next steps were or whether days of U.S. warnings had sent militia members into hiding, making it harder for the U.S. to detect and strike them. But it was clear that a recent statement by Kataib Hezbollah, one of the main Iranian-backed militias, that it would suspend attacks on U.S. forces had no impact on the administration's plans to respond.

It also appears that the U.S. strikes did not go so far as to directly target Iran or the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard. Iran denied being behind the attack on Jordan.

Even as a larger U.S. military response appears imminent, some Iranian-backed factions have vowed to continue attacking U.S. forces in the Middle East. In a statement issued on Friday, one of the most powerful Iranian-backed militias, Harakat al-Nujaba, announced its plans to continue military operations against U.S. forces despite other allied factions calling off their attacks following a drone strike on Sunday in Jordan.

Some militias have been a threat to U.S. bases for years, but the groups have intensified their attacks in the wake of Israel's war with Hamas following the October 7 attack on Israel. The war has killed thousands of civilians in Gaza and has now spread to four other countries. Iranian-backed militias across the region have used the conflict to justify striking Israeli or American interests, including threatening civilian commercial ships and American warships with drones or missiles in almost daily exchanges.

The Israeli military said on Friday that its Arrow defense system intercepted a missile that approached the country from the Red Sea, raising suspicions that Yemen's Houthi rebels launched it. The rebels did not immediately claim responsibility.

A second American official said that the army launched additional self-defense strikes inside Yemen on Friday against Houthi military targets considered an imminent threat. Al-Masirah TV, a satellite news channel run by the Houthis, said that British and American forces carried out three strikes in Hajjah Governorate in northern Yemen, a Houthi stronghold.

The official added that while previous U.S. responses in Iraq and Syria were more limited, the attack on Tower 22, as the Jordanian site is known, and the killing of the three service members crossed the line. The United States is considering a much broader response to include striking militia leaders. U.S. options are being considered.

The official said the attacks include targets in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, from where the Iranian-made drone that killed the service members was launched.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on a network of companies in Iran and Hong Kong accused of helping Iran obtain technology needed to make ballistic weapons and drones. The United States imposed sanctions on six Iranian officials for allegedly committing malicious cyber activities against critical infrastructure in the United States and other countries.

The attack on Tower 22 resulted in the first American soldiers killed in combat since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. U.S. response options were considered as President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be with the families of these fallen soldiers as their remains were returned to the United States.

The United States blamed the Jordanian attack on the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an alliance of Iranian-backed militias. In the days following the attack, the United States strengthened defenses around Tower 22, which houses about 350 American soldiers and is located near the demilitarized zone on the border between Jordan and Syria. The Iraqi border is only 6 miles (10 kilometers) away.

Defense Secretary Austin indicated on Thursday that the American response against the militias will expand.

"At this point, it's time to get rid of more capacity than we've acquired in the past," Austin said in his first news conference since being hospitalized on January 1 due to complications from prostate cancer treatment.

Austin said Iran had a hand in the attacks by supplying and training the militias. Another American official said that the United States tried to communicate through back channels with Iran during the past few months to get them to Restraining armed groups.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not been acknowledged publicly.

The United States also attempted to implement limited military responses in a series of strikes against weapons storage sites and training areas. So far, the U.S. response has not deterred groups that have attacked U.S. facilities at least 166 times since October.

At least one group, Kataib Hezbollah, another powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi militia that U.S. officials are closely monitoring, said on Tuesday that it would "suspend military and security operations against the occupation forces" to avoid embarrassing the Iraqi government in the wake of Jordan's attack.

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