After three months of drone and rocket attacks on U.S. and coalition housing in Iraq, President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes Sunday on three Iran-backed militia centers in Iraq and Syria.
“At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
The U.S. strikes were carried out by Air Force F-15 and F-16 jets, a defense official told Military Times. They “targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq,” both of which lie close to the border between those countries,” Kirby said. “Several Iran-backed militia groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), used these facilities.”
Three rockets hit Balad Air Base without causing any casualties or damage, an Iraqi military statement said. The base houses foreign contractors.
Earlier this month, the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center was damaged in a drone attack, Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of Tampa-based U.S. Central Command, confirmed to Military Times in an interview June 11. A U.S. Embassy official said there were minor injuries of American personnel at the facility, which houses “several hundred US/coalition service members assigned there,” Army Col. Wayne Marotto, a coalition spokesman, told Military Times earlier this month.
The diplomatic compound “suffered minor damage and a small number of personnel were treated and released for smoke inhalation,” a U.S. Embassy spokesperson told Military Times.
Pentagon spokesman Kirby said the airstrikes were justified under both international and U.S. law.
“As a matter of international law, the United States acted pursuant to its right of self-defense,” he said in his statement. “The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and appropriately limited in scope. As a matter of domestic law, the president took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq.”
Several Iraqi militia members were killed in the airstrikes, according to the Associated Press.
There were four militia members killed in airstrikes near the Syrian border, two Iraqi militia officials told AP. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give official statements, said the first strike hit a weapons storage facility inside Syrian territory, where the militiamen were killed. The second strike hit the border strip.
But another organization, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that closely monitors the Syrian conflict through activists on the ground, reported that at least five Iraqi militiamen were killed in the airstrikes, according to the AP.
In a joint statement, the Iran-backed Iraqi factions vowed revenge for the attack and would continue to target U.S. forces.
“We ... will avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs against the perpetrators of this heinous crime and with God’s help we will make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge,” the statement said.
Iran-backed militias have conducted at least five one-way drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April, as well as ongoing rocket attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Military Times.
The Sunday evening strike was at least the second time Biden has ordered retaliatory action against Iran-backed militias.
In February, a U.S. airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group, killing one fighter and wounding several others, an Iraqi militia official said at the time. That marked the first military action undertaken by Biden.