Campbell MacDiarmidSun, June 27, 2021, 6:15 PM·4 min readIn this article:
The United States bombed Iran-backed Iraqi militia targets on the Syrian-Iraq border overnight Monday, in response to drone attacks against American targets in Iraq.
In the second such strike since the inauguration of President Joe Biden in January, the US military said it targeted militia operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq.
US defence spokesman John Kirby said that the targets had been used by “Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
One of the facilities targeted had been used to launch and recover the drones, a defence official said.
Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi armed factions with close ties to Tehran, were among the “several Iran-backed militia groups” that had used the facilities, Mr Kirby said.
Pro-Iran Iraqi paramilitary groups promised retaliation after naming four members of the Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada militia as being killed in the attack.
President Biden ordered the strikes in response to increasingly frequent and sophisticated attacks on US interests in Iraq. Washington believes the attacks are carried out at the behest of Tehran to increase pressure on Washington amid ongoing negotiations over a potential return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Washington and Tehran are currently engaged in indirect negotiations over salvaging the agreement between Iran and world powers that former US president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
The United States and France warned Iran over the weekend that time was running out to return to the nuclear deal, as concerns grow about Iran’s atomic programming advancing in the meanwhile.
The latest strike suggests the Biden administration is seeking to compartmentalise the ongoing negotiations from wider US responses to Iranian activity and against Iranian proxies.
“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,” Mr Kirby said.
Iran responded with an apparent implied threat, calling on the United States to avoid “creating crisis” in the region.
“Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.
Since late 2019, Iran-backed Iraqi militias have conducted over 300 attacks against US interests in Iraq, causing four US fatalities and about 25 other casualties, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published in April.
“Iran remains capable of influencing the frequency and intensity of attacks by these groups against US interests in Iraq,” the agency assessed.
President Biden last ordered strikes on Irqi militia targets in Syria in February in response to rocket attacks in Iraq. The February strikes reportedly killed about 20 militiamen, according to a UK-based Syrian war monitor.
Approximately 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq as part of an international coalition against Islamic State group.
There have been at least 40 attacks on US interests in Iraq this year, some of which have been claimed by pro-Iran militias which oppose any US military presence in Iraq and Syria.
Most of the attacks have been against logistics convoys, with 14 rocket attacks against bases hosting US and other foreign personnel.
There have also been at least five attacks by explosive-laden drones since April, two US officials told Reuters. The drone attacks, which are more precise than rocket strikes, have been carefully calibrated to limit damage and casualties that could lead to a wider escalation between Iran and the United States.
The US military believes that drone attacks are now among the most serious threats faced by American troops in Iraq and Syria. The low-flying drones are able to evade detection by American defences installed to counter rocket, artillery and mortar attacks.
The top American commander for the Middle East Marine Gen Frank McKenzie told reporters in May of the growing threat posed by the drones, which are cheap and likely supplied by Iran.
“We’re working very hard to find technical fixes that would allow us to be more effective drones,” Gen McKenzie said at the time, outlining an accelerated programme to combat their threat.
In April a drone dropped explosives near US forces stationed at Erbil airport, causing no casualties but damaging a building. A drone attack in May damaged a hangar at Ain al-Asad base in Anbar province, which houses US Reaper drones. Three days later another drone hit an airfield in Harir in northern Iraq that is used by the US Joint Special Operations Command.
Last week the US seized a number of Iranian state-linked news websites, accusing them of spreading disinformation, shortly after the hardline head of Iran’s judiciary Ebrahim Raisi won presidential elections.
The seized sites included those belonging to the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, which US authorities last year accused of a disinformation campaign to sow discord ahead of the US presidential election, as well as the website site for the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia, Kataeb Hizbollah.