The United States has launched airstrikes on the facilities of two groups of militias backed by Iran on the border between Syria and Iraq, the second attack by the Biden administration in four months.
The strikes are likely to provoke tensions in the region just over a week after Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, won Iran’s presidential election.
John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the operational and weapons storage facilities, which were used to launch drone attacks against U.S. troops and structures, were aimed at Syria and Iraq.
Kirby said the airstrikes were “defensive” and a response to an “ongoing series of attacks by Iranian-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq.” He added that they had been used by many supporters from Iran militias included Hezbollah’s Kata’ib and Sayyid al-Shuhada’s Kata’ib.
“The United States has taken necessary, appropriate, and deliberate actions aimed at limiting the risk of escalation – but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” Kirby said.
President Joe Biden has ordered for the first time strikes against Iranian-backed militias on the Iraq-Syria border in February after a raid attack on the northern Iraqi city of Erbil killed one businessman civilian and wounded several others, including a member of the U.S. Army.
Iraq is home to a myriad of militant groups backed by Iran that regularly launch raids and drones against Iraqi bases hosting American troops and American structures in the country.
The attacks have increased in frequency after the Trump administration assassinated Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a former Iraqi militia leader, in a close-knit drone strike. at Baghdad airport in January 2020.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for Iran’s foreign minister, said the Biden administration was going in the wrong direction and following the “failed” policies of its previous president. He added that the United States “disrupts security in the region,” warning that it would be “one of the victims of such disruptions.”
“We recommend that the new US government reform its path instead [following] such emotional behaviors, creating crisis. . . problems and dilemmas for people in the region, ”Khatibzadeh told reporters at his weekly press conference on Monday.
The stated goal of many of the militant groups is to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis – heroes for the Shiite militias. After Soleimani’s death, Iran promised to drive American forces out of the region.
There are about 2,500 American troops based in Iraq, where American and Iranian rivalries are taking place.
U.S. strikes on Sunday followed a election of Raisi, a conservative cleric and chief justice, who gave gifts of control to all branches of the Islamic republic for the first time in nearly a decade. Raisi takes over the presidency in August.
The attack comes at a sensitive time when the Biden administration and world powers seek to secure an agreement with Iran that will lead the United States to reconcile the 2015 Tehran nuclear deal signed with world powers.
The remaining signatories to the agreement – the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China and Russia – have held several rounds of negotiations in Vienna to revive the agreement.
Hostility between the United States and Iran escalated after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and imposed waves of sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Biden said the United States will renounce the agreement and lift several sanctions if Iran returns to full respect of the agreement. Tehran insists the United States must lift all sanctions.
But the Biden administration is also under pressure from U.S. politicians, Israel and Washington’s Arab partners to take a hard line on Iran’s support for regional militias and its missile program. Iran has vowed not to relinquish its support to regional militias or curb expansive missile programs even if it means the United States will not lift sanctions.