4 killed in US airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria

The United States military said on Sunday it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq.

At least four members of Shi’ite militias were killed in “defensive precision airstrikes” which US President Joe Biden ordered against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups along the Iraq-Syria border region on Sunday night.
According to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, the targets were selected “because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
Specifically, the strikes targeted “operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries,” said Kirby. “Several Iran-backed militia groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, used these facilities,” he added.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect US personnel,” the Pentagon statement reads. “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.”

The US’s presence in Iraq is at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, he said, “for the sole purpose of assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in their efforts to defeat ISIS.”

“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,” Kirby added.

He noted that the United States “acted pursuant to its right of self-defense,” and that the strikes “were both necessary to address the threat and appropriately limited in scope.”

At least four members of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were killed in the airstrikes, according to Iranian media. According to Sky News Arabia, five PMF members were killed. The PMF vowed to respond to the strikes, saying it was “fully prepared” to “take revenge.”

The Syrian state news agency SANA claimed that the airstrikes targeted residential homes, killing a child and injuring three civilians.

Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, a Shi’ite militant group which was targeted in the airstrikes, warned that it would now be in “open war” against the United States, threatening to target US aircraft in Iraqi airspace.

Iraqi military spokesman Maj.-Gen. Yehia Rasool condemned the US airstrikes on Monday, saying that the strikes represent “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, and clings to its right to sovereignty over its lands, and prevents it from being used as an arena for reactions and attacks,” added Rasool, calling for calm and avoiding escalation in all forms.

“The United States continues to take the wrong path in the region. In the realm of regional behavior, it is a continuation of the failed US policy and legacy in the region,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, in response to the airstrikes on Monday morning, according to Iranian media.

Khatibzadeh advised the US to “change its course, instead of creating a crisis and creating problems for the people of the region.” The spokesperson called for the people of the region to “decide their own destiny without [US] intervention.

“What the United States is doing is disrupting regional security, and one of the victims of this disruptive regional security is the United States,” added Khatibzadeh.

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, told The Jerusalem Post: “It is heartening to see the administration set the edge with Iran. Attacks by terrorist groups against American troops should be a red line for any American president.

“Iran, through its proxy groups, has provoked the United States at a time when the Biden administration appears determined to yield massive sanctions relief to the regime as part of the anticipated return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal,” Schanzer said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see the administration reversing course. Despite this aggression, the regime is likely to still receive everything it wants out of the deal.”

The strikes appear to show Biden’s efforts to compartmentalize defensive strikes to protect American personnel, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy with regards to a return to the nuclear deal.

The Post reported last week that the US is seeking to extend the time between rounds of indirect nuclear talks with Iran, in order to talk to the new Israeli government more about its position.

Washington feels that the negotiations to return to the 2015 deal are worth delaying in order to better cooperate with Israel, a source with knowledge of the Biden’s administration’s side of the talks said on Wednesday.

His critics say Iran cannot be trusted while pointing to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a US military presence in Iraq or Syria.

US officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against US personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the US military has been helping Baghdad combat remnants of the Islamic State.

Two US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by US and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The US military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against US forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iranian-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) issued a statement on Sunday night, saying that the airstrikes “appear to be a targeted and proportional response to a serious and specific threat.”

“Protecting the military heroes who defend our freedoms is a sacred priority,” she said. “The Iran-backed militias utilizing these facilities have been engaged in attacks threatening US service members, as well as our allies.”

“Congress looks forward to receiving and reviewing the formal notification of this operation under the War Powers Act and to receiving additional briefings from the administration,” Pelosi added.

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