Weekend Herald

US airstrikes target Iran-backed militants

Pentagon says strikes destroyed facilities in Syria and were retaliatio­n for a rocket attack in Iraq


The United States launched airstrikes in Syria yesterday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranianbac­ked militia groups.

The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliatio­n for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administra­tion, which in its first weeks has emphasised its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvemen­t in the region but rather to demonstrat­e a will to defend US troops in Iraq.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommende­d the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivi­ty and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportion­ate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultati­on with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguou­s message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.

“At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The US has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq in the past.

Biden administra­tion officials condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semiautono­mous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranianbac­ked Shiite militia groups have been responsibl­e for numerous rocket attacks that targeted US personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said on Wednesday that Iraq is in charge of investigat­ing the February 15 attack.

“Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attributio­n as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigat­ions complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.”

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya alDam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibi­lity for the February 15 attack.

A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.

The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against US targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inaugurati­on, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.

The US under the previous Trump administra­tion blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington directed drone strike that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq.

The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

US forces have been significan­tly reduced in Iraq to 2500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

 ?? Photo / AP ?? Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportion­ate military response” .
Photo / AP Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportion­ate military response” .

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