A network of Iranian-backed militant groups – calling itself the “Axis of Resistance” – carries out attacks against Israel, the United States and international shipping, which the militants say is in protest of Israel’s war and support for the Palestinians. As part of this so-called axis, Iran-backed militias have stepped up attacks on American forces in the Middle East following the Syrian civil war and the military campaign against ISIS.
There have been more than 160 attacks by these groups in Syria and Iraq, resulting in injuries to American soldiers, including those who suffered brain injuries. Last week, a drone attack on a US base in Jordan killed three US servicemen – President Joe Biden has promised a strong, multi-stage response as he tries to avoid direct war with Iran.
That came in the form of about 85 strikes Friday night on targets linked to Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, or Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, which backs President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The heavily delayed US operation gave Iran’s military commanders and their allies plenty of time to catch up. A senior Iraqi official told NBC News on Wednesday that they had evacuated sensitive areas and moved weapons.
“We’re not trying to send a signal to anyone other than those who are harming Americans,” Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims II, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday.
Nevertheless, some analysts do not see the strikes as a significant step in US deterrence efforts.
They appeared to differ “in terms of strength, number of targets, and the use of not only airstrikes but also cyber operations. There may be elements of covert activity that we don’t know about,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director of the Washington-based United Group Against a Nuclear Iran. But, he added in a post on X, “nothing that’s public suggests anything of significant strategic value that struck me. Although the number of targets has increased, the quality has more or less not changed.”
Experts say the advance warning may have been in part to give Iran and its proxies, particularly in Iraq, where the United States has important bases and is also trying to maintain ties with the nearby Shiite-led government, a bloody nose without an escalating response. to Iran.
Regardless, Iraq’s response has been harsh, sparking a verbal conflict between Washington and the government in Baghdad, which still hosts US troops after the 2003 invasion and subsequent fight against ISIS.
The US said it had warned Iraq in advance of the airstrikes, a denial Iraq accused Washington of killing 16 people in the country, including civilians, and of “deliberate deception and falsification of facts”.
A senior official of the US administration told NBC News that this is not true. “It wasn’t a big headline,” the official said, which he said was expected given Iraq’s ties to Iran-backed militias in the country. “But it is not true to say that they were not informed. “Iraq is a sovereign nation and we respect their right to express their concerns, but then they should not keep these Iranian groups on Iraqi soil.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 people were killed in Syria.
The current relationship between Iraq and Iran is complicated, with Iraq politically dependent on powerful, Iranian-backed militias based there but also hosting American troops.
The Pentagon said Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful of these militias, had “traces” of a deadly attack on US forces in Jordan. Kataib Hezbollah said last week it would stop attacks against Americans in the region because it did not want to embarrass the Iraqi government, which had called for calm on all sides.
But on Saturday, militants posted a video on the Telegram messaging service citing military spokesman Jafar al-Husseini in an interview last month, hinting that this could yet change.
“Americans will see days they will never forget throughout history,” he said.
Keir Simmons and Mo Abbas reported from Erbil, and Alex Smith reported from London.