© AFP Jim WATSON
Airstrike follows deadly rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this month
By Gordon Lubold, Nancy A. Youssef and Benoit Faucon – The Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. military launched an airstrike in Syria targeting groups affiliated with an Iran-backed militia in response to deadly rocket attacks in northern Iraq earlier this month, U.S. officials said.
The strike was believed to have destroyed a string of small buildings used by militia groups to house and transport weaponry, according to one U.S. official. The Pentagon said in a statement that the attack destroyed facilities at a border-control point used by Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. It wasn’t immediately known how many casualties resulted from the strike, but the U.S. official said casualties likely were minimal.
The airstrike was the first known instance in which the Biden administration had approved the use of military force against an adversary since taking office last month.
A series of rocket attacks on Feb. 15 in Erbil, Iraq, killed a Filipino national who was a U.S. contractor, while injuring a U.S. service member and other contractors. Since then, the Biden administration has been deliberating a response.
President Biden mentioned the rocket attacks in a phone call Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. A White House statement afterward said the two agreed and “that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account.”
The strike, which occurred Thursday at around 6 p.m. ET, appeared to be the most restrained response available, according to two officials. The operation was planned over several days, the officials said.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”
The strike was both defensive and offensive, another U.S. official said, meaning that it was in response to the Erbil attack, while also targeting weapons used against U.S. interests by Iran-backed militia groups.
The administration decision to launch the strike comes, as the U.S. is attempting to restart the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. While the administration has said through its European allies that it would be willing to start talks, Iran has said the U.S. must lift sanctions first.
The strike was observed throughout the area. The security website Aurora Intel said in a tweet: “Three explosions were reported in the vicinity of [Abu Kamal]. Reports suggest a convoy of vehicles passed through the crossing before the airstrike was conducted, possible weapons movement if confirmed.”
A pro-Shiite militia media outlet reported Thursday that the U.S. attacks targeted an empty structure, killing one person and lightly wounding others, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity. Sabireen News reported that the groups targeted had used aerial surveillance and fled before the strikes, according to SITE.
In the past year, eastern Syria has been an area of intense military activity by Iran-backed groups aimed at outflanking U.S. influence in northern Iraq, security experts have said.
In early 2020, after Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike, the Iranians brought 50 thermal rockets—a type of high-performance missile—from Deir Ezzour airport in Syria to areas near the Iraqi border, according to a person familiar with U.S. intelligence in the region.
The arsenal was to be used as a deterrent against any U.S. attempt to cut a logistical highway between Tehran and Damascus, the person said. It was also a way to open a new launchpad for potential attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, he said.
Featured article licensed from the Wall Street Journal.