After three months of drone and rocket attacks on facilities in Iraq housing U.S. and coalition personnel, President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes Sunday on three Iran-backed militia facilities 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 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.”
The three targets were specifically associated with the militia drone threat — command, control and logistics — the defense official told Military Times.
The U.S. aircraft, which returned safely to their bases, used a mix of precision-guided munitions, the defense official said.
“It is too early to assess whether there were militia or civilian casualties,” the defense official added.
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,” Kirby’s statement reads. “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.
“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.
Earlier this month, the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center was damaged in a drone attack, Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, confirmed to Military Times in an exclusive interview on June 11. A U.S. Embassy official said there were minor injuries to 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. He did not elaborate on whether those injured personnel were troops or civilians, nor weigh in on what types of munitions were used.
Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes were a response to ongoing Iran-backed militia drone and rocket attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq, Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Military Times.
“Iran-backed militias have conducted at least five one-way UAV 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,” she said.
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.
Pentagon officials said the February strikes were retaliation for attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, including a rocket attack in northern Iraq on Feb. 15 that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.
At the time, Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said two Air Force F-15E aircraft launched seven precision guided munitions, fully destroying nine facilities and heavily damaging two others, rendering the two “functionally destroyed.” He said the facilities, at “entry control points” on the border, had been used by militia groups the U.S. deems responsible for a number of recent attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq.
In his Sunday evening statement, Kirby said that the most recent U.S. airstrikes demonstrated that Biden “has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel. 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.”
In his June 11 interview with Military Times, McKenzie, the CENTCOM commander, confirmed that the attack on the BDSC was carried out by a drone and that it was representative of Iran’s actions in the region.
“These attacks are troubling, going forward, and what they represent is — for well over the last year, year and a half — Iran has sought to force us to leave Iraq,” McKenzie told Military Times, “And they sought to do that through political means. And so now that they recognize they’re not going to get there, politically, they’re shifting to a military approach, and that’s just where we are right now.
“The drone attack on the BDSC and this UAV attack — and I can tell you it was a UAV attack, but I’m really not in a position today to give you much more information on it right now — is representative of that.”
When asked if he anticipated the potential of kinetic action with Iran — in Iraq or elsewhere — McKenzie said that was a decision to be made at levels above him.
Sunday night, when asked if the U.S. military anticipates any retaliatory action from Iran, McNulty, the Pentagon spokesman, said that the most recent U.S. airstrikes “were necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation.
“Through these and other means, we seek to make clear to Iran and Iran-backed militia groups that there will be serious consequences if they continue to attack, or to arm, fund, and train militia groups that attack our people,” she said in an email statement to Military Times. “We will take necessary and appropriate measures to defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region.”
This story contains information from the Associated Press.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.