WASHINGTON – The United States on Thursday launched air strikes in eastern Syria against buildings that the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militias responsible for recent attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq.
President Biden approved the strikes in response to the missiles in Iraq and the continuing threat to American and coalition personnel there, said Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby, who spoke to reporters traveling with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in California were.
A missile attack on Erbil airport in northern Iraq on February 15 killed a Filipino contractor from the American-led military coalition and wounded six others, including a Louisiana National Guard soldier and four American contractors.
American officials said the strikes were a relatively small, carefully calibrated military response: Seven £ 500 bombs fell on a small cluster of buildings at an unofficial intersection on the Syrian-Iraqi border where guns and fighters were smuggled.
The strikes took place in Syria just across the border to avoid a diplomatic setback for the Iraqi government. The Pentagon offered larger audiences, but Mr Biden agreed to a less aggressive option, American officials said.
The American air strikes on Thursday “specifically destroyed several facilities at a border checkpoint used by a number of Iranian-backed militia forces, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada,” Kirby said.
“This appropriate military response was carried out along with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners,” he added. “The operation sends a clear message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel.”
Mr Kirby said American retaliation should punish the perpetrators of the missile attack, but not escalate hostilities with Iran that the Biden administration has tried to renew talks on a nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump has put on hold.
“We took deliberate action to de-escalate the overall situation in Eastern Syria and Iraq,” said Kirby.
The attack on Erbil Airport was alleged by a little-known group called Awliya al Dam, or Guardian of the Blood Brigades. The group also assumed responsibility for two bombings against convoys of US contractors in August.
Little is known about the group, including whether it is supported by Iran or related to the organizations that used the facilities targeted by the American air strikes on Thursday. Some American officials claim the group is just a front for one of the better-known Shiite militias.
Michael P. Mulroy, a former senior Middle East policy official at the Pentagon, said the limited strikes were intended to signal that Iran’s use of militias as proxies would not allow them to evade responsibility for the attack on Americans. But the time and place of the attack were also important.
“The decision to strike in Syria rather than Iraq should avoid creating problems for the Iraqi government, which is a key partner in the ongoing anti-ISIS efforts,” Mulroy said in an email. “It was wise to strike in Syria and avoid the setback in Iraq.”
Mr Biden discussed the rocket attacks on Tuesday in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. In a subsequent statement by the White House, it was said that the two agreed “that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully accountable”.
The retaliatory strikes that took place around 6 p.m. Thursday in Washington or Friday at 2 a.m. in eastern Syria had been on the move for several days as American intelligence agencies worked to build a high level of confidence that the two Iraqi militias were responsible for the missile strikes.
American officials said the attack killed a “handful” of militias, but the Pentagon did not provide a detailed assessment of the damage.
The Saberin News Telegram channel, affiliated with the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, reported one death and several injured. It was said that the strikes targeted an empty building and a different structure for the militia. The bases were in an area between Al Qaem and Abu Kamal near the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Mr Biden approved the strikes Thursday morning as his Secretary of Defense was at a San Diego hotel preparing to visit the aircraft carrier Nimitz returning home from the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Austin expressed confidence that the targeted facilities were being used by militia groups responsible for the attacks. Speaking to reporters on board his plane Thursday night, he said the Biden administration was “deliberate” in its approach.
“We have allowed and encouraged the Iraqis to study and develop information and it has been very helpful for us to refine the target,” he said.
The Biden government has reacted more slowly to the rocket spillade in Erbil than Trump’s campaign against Iran and previous actions by his deputies in Iraq – one that the Iraqi government has often caught in the crossfire.
Government officials have said since the Erbil attack that the United States would respond to the strike at a time and place of its choice.
Nonetheless, the deliberate nature of the new administration’s approach has raised questions in both Washington and Baghdad about where Mr Biden’s red lines are when it comes to responding to attacks by Iranian-backed militias targeting Americans in Iraq.
The US military has reduced the number of its troops in Iraq to below 2,500 and has withdrawn from several bases in the past two years. It is said that Iraq no longer needs the aid it has provided in the past to combat Islamic State, although American officials have acknowledged that militia strikes were also taken into account when deciding to move troops to bases that are easier to defend .
Iran has made it clear that it intends to take further revenge for the US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020 that killed an Iranian commander in chief, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official. Days after this strike, the Iranian government launched rocket attacks against US forces at the Ain al Assad air base in the Iraqi province of Anbar, injuring more than 100 soldiers.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.