U.S. forces struck multiple targets in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militant groups at around 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, the Pentagon press secretary confirmed to reporters, in retaliation for recent rocket attacks against bases in Iraq housing U.S. and coalition troops and civilians, including one that injured an American service member and killed a civilian contractor.
The strikes, ordered by President Joe Biden, “destroyed multiple facilities,” John Kirby said, used by groups including Kat’ib Hezbollah and Kat’ib Sayyid Lal’shuhada.
“At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” said Kirby. “These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel. Specifically, the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups
“This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners,” Kirby said. “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”
The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters he authorized the strikes Thursday morning, but would not say when he was notified of the group responsible for the attacks in Iraq.
“There’s not much more that I’ll be able to add at this point, other than the fact that we’re confident in the target that we went after ... and we’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the [attacks],” Austin said.
“It was my recommendation. We’ve said a number of times, we will respond on our timeline. And, once again [we] wanted to be sure of the connectivity and that we had the right targets,” he added.
The airstrikes killed one of the militiamen and wounded a number of others, an Iraqi militia official said Friday.
The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak of the attack. Syria war monitoring groups said the strikes hit trucks moving weapons to a base for Iranian-backed militias in Boukamal.
There were no injuries in the Feb. 22 incident, a South African civilian was wounded on Feb. 21 and on Feb. 15, three 107 mm rockets struck an Iraqi airbase in Irbil where U.S. forces are based, killing one U.S.-led coalition contractor and injuring a U.S. service member and others, Iraqi security and coalition officials reported, sparking fears of new hostilities.
A year ago, militia attacks provoked the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps organization was responsible for numerous attacks on U.S. troops, including a late December incident in Kirkuk that killed an American contractor and wounded multiple service members.
Iran retaliated for the killing of Soleimani with a missile barrage on two Iraqi airbases at al-Asad and Erbil housing U.S. troops launched early in the morning on Jan. 8, 2020.
While no U.S. troops were killed in the attack, more than 100 U.S. troops have been treated for traumatic brain injury.
The airstrikes ordered by Biden come in the weeks after the U.S. drew its presence down to 2,500 troops in Iraq. At the same time, NATO’s secretary general announced Thursday his plan to sharply increase the number of coalition troops on the counter-ISIS mission, from 500 up to 4,000.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.
This is a developing story. Stay with Military Times for updates.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.