WASHINGTON – President Biden on Thursday ordered air strikes on buildings in Syria that the Pentagon says were used by Iranian-backed troops in retaliation for rocket attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Iraq.
The Pentagon’s press secretary, John Kirby, described the bombings in eastern Syria as “carefully calibrated”, calling them “proportional” and “defensive.”
The military was the first known military operation by the Biden administration, which for weeks focused on plans to focus more on the challenges posed by China.
The president’s decision was intended to send a signal to Iran and its proxies in the region that Washington would not tolerate attacks on its personnel in Iraq, even at a sensitive diplomatic moment.
Three rocket attacks in a week in Iraq, including a deadly strike on a U.S.-led coalition base in the northern city of Iraq, introduced a test for Biden just weeks after taking office. The rocket attack is consistent with a diplomatic initiative launched by the administration to try to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Kirby said in a statement that the airstrikes were in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq and that those personnel were under constant threat.
He said the operation destroyed several facilities located at the border control points used by several Iranian-backed terrorist groups, including Qatab Hezbollah and Qatab Syed al-Shuhada.
Syrian and Iranian officials did not immediately respond to the strike.
The Syrian Serv Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday that 22 people had been killed in the strike. The London-based monitoring group did not provide details on how the figure was obtained. Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB News, meanwhile, said 17 “resistance fighters” had been killed in the strike, but did not elaborate on the source of the figures, citing “reports”.
A senior U.S. defense official told NBC News on Thursday evening that the target is a transit hub near the Iraqi-Syrian border, used by military fighters, and it was too early to say what the terrorists might be.
“This operation sends a clear message: President Biden will work to protect American and coalition workers. At the same time, we have taken deliberate action aimed at destabilizing the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.
The official said the strike, which took place at 6pm EST on Thursday or 2am on Friday, involved two U.S. aircraft.
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Defense Secretary Lloyd Aust Stein told reporters traveling with him that the administration has been “very conscious of our approach.”
“We are confident that this is the same target being used by Shiite militias,” Weinstein said, referring to recent rocket attacks on US and coalition personnel in Iraq.
The Pentagon has previously said it is awaiting the results of an Iraqi investigation into the Irbil rocket attack.
“We allowed the Iraqis to investigate and develop intelligence and it helped us a lot in improving that goal,” said Aust Stein, who was on his way to Washington after visiting California and Colorado.
Biden approved the operation Thursday morning, he said.
A civilian contractor was killed in the Irbil rocket attack, and U.S. A member of the service and others were injured. At least two landed at the 107mm rocket base, which also hosts Irbil’s Civil International Airport.
NBC News previously reported that Iranian-backed military groups were largely behind the Irabil rocket attack, and that the weapons and tactics were similar to previous attacks by Iranian-linked forces. However, it is not clear whether Iran encouraged or ordered the rocket attack.
The Saraiya attack was carried out by an obscure group called Lia al-Dam, or the custodian of blood. But former diplomats and regional analysts said the group is a front organization formed by Iraq’s main Shia Shiites.
After a rocket attack on the Irbil base, Iraq’s Bald Air Base came under rocket fire, where a U.S. defense firm serves the country’s fighter jets, and then two rockets landed near the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad.
Iran has denied any involvement in the rocket attack.
In a phone call between Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Tuesday, the two leaders agreed that “those responsible for such an attack must be held accountable,” according to a White House statement.
Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. diplomat who has worked on Middle East policy under several presidents, said the administration has reduced the risk of clashes with the Iraqi government by beating targets in Syria.
“Facilities used by the military directly along the Syrian border have reduced the risk of a blow to the Iraqi government,” Ross said. Tweeted.
Dan de Lewis and Moshe Gains reported from Washington; Ali Arozi reported from London; Ahin Hussein Khodadadi reported from Tehran; And Charlene Gubasch reported from Cairo.
The Associated Press contributed.
Ali Arozi, Amin Hossain Khodadadi and Charlene Gubash Contributed.