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US airstrikes hit Iran-backed militia after drone attacks in Iraq

CENTCOM is trying to deter militia attacks without starting a war.
The Pentagon building, located in Arlington County, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The United States launched airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria before dawn on Monday, in response to a series of drone attacks on facilities used by American personnel in Iraq, the Pentagon said.

The three targeted sites — two in Syria and one in Iraq — were used by Iran-backed militias to launch drones against bases used by the United States in Iraq, spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement.

Four militia members were killed in the strike at Qaim, on Syria’s side of the remote border with Iraq, according to pro-militia Sabereen news agency, which released photos of the four deceased fighters.

Iraq’s armed forces condemned the strikes, calling them a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security in accordance with all international conventions.” 

“Iraq renews its refusal to be an arena for settling accounts,” read a statement by the spokesman for commander-in-chief and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

The Pentagon described the sites as “operational and weapons storage facilities” frequented by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada near the Iraq-Syria border. The strikes were “defensive in nature,” Kirby’s statement read, and invoked international law and Article II of the US Constitution.

“Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting US interests in Iraq, the President directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks,” it said.

It continued, “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.”

President Joe Biden previously authorized strikes in February against buildings on the Syrian side of the border that the Pentagon said at the time were used by the same two Iran-backed militias. Those strikes came after a rocket attack that killed a US civilian contractor and injured coalition personnel.

Militias backed by Iran control major roadways in Iraq’s Anbar desert leading across Syria’s border to the west, which they captured during the multinational war against the Islamic State (IS).

Video from Sabereen, the pro-Iran militia channel, circulated on Telegram purporting to show one site in the aftermath of the strikes. Rubble and what appear to be at least two destroyed artillery guns are visible in the footage, which was not independently confirmed by Al-Monitor.

The move is likely to amplify debate in Congress over the White House’s war authorizations, and is unlikely to halt future attacks by pro-Iran militias in Iraq.

“I expect to be briefed tomorrow by the White House on the US military airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border,” said US Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) in a statement Sunday night.

Murphy, a prominent member of the Senate’s foreign relations panel, cautioned that the repeated back-and-forth strikes may require congressional authorization.

The United States carried out the strikes hours after Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad on Sunday. It was the first visit by an Egyptian president to Iraq since before the 1991 Gulf War, in which Egypt joined the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein’s forces.

More than 3,000 US troops remain in Iraq and northeast Syria as part of the international coalition against IS. Launched in 2014 during the Obama administration, the ongoing mission was authorized under a 2001 law that allowed the White House to go after those who planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

IS surrendered its last significant territory in March 2019, but US troops have remained in there to maintain local stability and political leverage over the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. Thousands of US personnel departed Iraq last year, following orders from former President Donald Trump, who considered the stabilization mission to be “endless war.”

Democrats have renewed a push in recent years to repeal or modify the laws that authorized the so-called War on Terror. The current administration has signaled support for moves for reform.

A series of rocket attacks have hit facilities used by the United States in Iraq in recent years, as pro-Iran factions seek to pressure American forces out of the country. Despite retaliatory strikes by the Trump administration that led to the brink of conflict with Iran early last year, the attacks have not abated.

Since April, at least five drone attacks have targeted sensitive sites used by the United States, including a CIA storage facility at Erbil air base. Four explosive drones hit buildings northeast of the US Consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish capital early on Saturday morning. It was not immediately clear why the sites were targeted.

Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US military forces in the Middle East, has said that drones pose the most vexing risk to American forces and their partners in the region since the demise of IS. US air defenses have failed to stop previous drone attacks in Iraq. The military is experimenting with counter-drone technology, the commander has said.

The United States has bolstered local air defenses in Saudi Arabia — which has also come under repeated projectile attacks from Iran-linked groups — and quietly supported Israel’s campaign of airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria since 2018. US officials have said Israel’s campaign has prevented precision-guided weapons from moving close to its borders.

Monday’s strikes come as the Biden administration is seeking to revive a 2015 international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, a move which Israeli officials have opposed.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israel’s new Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Rome on Saturday.

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