U.S. Conducts Airstrikes in Syria and Iraq Against Iranian-Backed Militias

U.S. Conducts Airstrikes in Syria and Iraq Against Iranian-Backed Militias

Attacks on three locations near the Syria-Iraq border are Biden’s second use of force in region

The U.S. conducted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against two Iranian-backed militias that the Pentagon said were mounting drone attacks against U.S. troops.

The Pentagon said operational and weapons-storage facilities had been struck near the Syria-Iraq border at three locations that it said had been used by the Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militia groups.

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

Sabreen, a news agency in Iraq that supports Iranian-allied militias, said that U.S. airstrikes killed four members of the paramilitaries known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces on a military base in Iraq’s Anbar province. The agency published the names and photos of the four, including three wearing military-style uniforms.

The agency also released photos showing what it said were artillery pieces damaged in the airstrikes.

The action—which occurred at around 6 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday, or the early hours of Monday in the region—was President Biden’s second use of force in the region. In February, he ordered airstrikes by F-15Es in response to a rocket attack against the U.S. coalition in Erbil, Iraq.

In the February episode, Mr. Biden picked the most conservative option presented to him by military commanders, leading some observers to question whether that approach would be sufficient to deter further attacks by Shiite militia groups sponsored by Iran.

In recent months, the U.S. has become increasingly concerned that such militia groups were pursuing more sophisticated means of attacking American forces by using remotely piloted drones, the Pentagon said.

The U.S., along with other Western nations, has a small complement of troops in Iraq to train and mentor the Iraq military, which is still contending with remnants of Islamic State force that took over Mosul and other cities in 2014 but was defeated by the American-led coalition.

Mr. Biden, after returning Sunday evening to the White House from a weekend at Camp David, didn’t address questions shouted by reporters about the airstrikes.

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

The airstrikes, more extensive than the one in February, came in response to at least five militia drone attacks directed at U.S. forces in Iraq since April, the U.S. official said.

Particular concern was raised by a June 9 militia attack with explosive-laden drones on a complex known as the Baghdad Diplomatic Service Center, near the Baghdad airport. It took place while several U.S. contractors and other personnel were eating, suggesting to military officials that it was timed to produce casualties. The attack sparked a fire, and a number of American contractors and other personnel were treated for smoke inhalation, State Department officials said at the time.

The new U.S. military action comes at a delicate time in the Biden administration’s dealings with Tehran. American negotiators have been trying to revive in talks in Vienna the 2015 deal that limited Iran’s nuclear program. Iran also elected a new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, in June in a vote the U.S. State Department called “pre-manufactured.”

In February, the Biden administration sent a confidential message to Tehran after its airstrike, a U.S. official said at the time. U.S. officials didn’t provide details of that communication but it came as the Biden administration was saying publicly that it wanted to deter Shiite militia attacks without escalating the conflict into a broader confrontation with Iran. One U.S. official said a similar message would be sent this time.

Kata’ib Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed group in Iraq that the U.S. says has long organized attacks against U.S. forces. The U.S. accused the other targeted group, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, of carrying out the February rocket in Erbil, and targeted sites associated with the group in that month’s airstrike.

The areas near the Iraq-Syria border struck in the latest action have militia weapons-storage facilities, a former U.S. military official said, and are close to a major route Iran uses to send weapons to proxy groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

“There is a strong consensus in the U.S. 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.

By his count, he added, there have been at least eight drone attacks directed at U.S. 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 U.S. has given the militia drone industry similar treatment,” he said. “But the 2020 airstrikes did not stop rocket attacks, and the likelihood is that these strikes will not stop drone attacks either.”

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