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U.S. targets Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria strikes

The United States military conducted airstrikes on what they said were facilities used by “Iran-backed militia groups” near the Iraq-Syria border on June 27. (Video: DVIDS via Storyful)

U.S. forces launched airstrikes on facilities on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, the Pentagon said Sunday, in response to recent drone attacks on U.S. troops in the region carried out by Iran-backed militias.

Two militia locations in Syria were attacked, along with one in Iraq, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement, which described the strikes as defensive in nature. He said that the locations were used by the Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada groups, which are both linked to Iran.

Officials have said militias employing small, explosive-laden drones to attack regional U.S. personnel are one of the chief concerns for the U.S. military mission there.

Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada said in a statement that four of its militiamen were killed in the attack on the Iraqi side of the border. Photographs suggested that the youngest among them was in his early 20s.

Separately, Syrian state media said, without providing evidence, that U.S. strikes hit residential buildings near the border around 1 a.m. local time, killing one child and wounding three residents. TV channel Al-Ikhbaria did not report the reason for the strikes offered by the Pentagon, but added that U.S. forces have struck the area many times.

At least five drone attacks on U.S. personnel have occurred in the region this year, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. One of the sites hit Sunday was used in the launch and recovery of armed unmanned aircraft. Another was a logistics hub, the official added.

“President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” Kirby said. “Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the President directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks.”

Iraqi officials have lobbied their U.S. counterparts to avoid retaliatory strikes on Iraqi soil, arguing that they would complicate the already delicate politics surrounding the fate of the rest of the U.S.-led coalition force still stationed in Iraq.

That force has halved in size to about 2,500 U.S. troops since the start of last year, when President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate leading Iranian military strategist Qasem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside Baghdad Airport sent shock waves through the region and caused Iraq’s parliament to urge the expulsion of all U.S. troops.

Despite significant pressure to produce a timetable for the U.S.-dominated force’s final departure, Iraqi military officials argue that its intelligence and aerial support are still crucial elements in maintaining pressure on Islamic State remnants in Iraq.

Sunday’s strikes are in response to increasingly brazen and sophisticated attacks by Iran-backed militias on U.S.-linked forces that in recent years have relied more on rockets than drones. Officials in Washington say these are probably linked to Kataib Hezbollah, a group the United States has bombed on several occasions in Iraq.

Increasingly, militiamen are now turning to small, fixed-wing drones that fly too low to be detected by defensive systems, military officials and diplomats have said. A common strategy is to attach explosives to the drones and crash them into targets, defense officials have said.

An April attack on a CIA hangar at the Irbil airport highlighted the uniquely frustrating problem of small unmanned aircraft sorties. A drone was detected within 10 miles of the site, officials have said, but it was lost after careening into a civilian flight path. Although no casualties were reported, the attack deeply concerned White House and Pentagon officials because of the covert nature of the facility and the sophistication of the strike.

A similar attack on an Iraqi air base in May raised worries that further attacks may trigger a cycle of retaliation among U.S. forces and Iran-backed forces that operate in the region. The U.S. assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis prompted Iranian ballistic missile attacks on U.S. troops in western Iraq, which led to scores of injuries but no deaths.

A U.S. contractor died after a smaller attack on the same air base in March.

The strikes come as the United States and Iran continue tense negotiations aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear accord that limits its uranium enrichment. Iran is seeking the lifting of U.S.-imposed sanctions. The Biden administration wants Iran to return to its deal compliance and hold talks to curb Tehran’s support for proxy forces in the Middle East, as well as its development of ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon has monitored the escalation of small-drone warfare after the Islamic State flew terrifying sorties of hobbyist drone aircraft against Iraqi troops in the battle to retake territory from the group.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, told reporters on a Syria trip last month that the Pentagon is looking for ways to cut command-and-control links between a drone and its operator, improve radar sensors to quickly identify the threat as it approaches and find effective ways to bring down the aircraft.

“We’re open to all kinds of things,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “Still, I don’t think we’re where we want to be.”

The Biden administration in February ordered airstrikes against Iranian proxies in Syria, killing an undisclosed number of militants.

Loveluck reported from London. Dan Lamothe, Mustafa Salim, Sarah Dadouch, Kareem Fahim and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report, which has been updated.