Biden faces pressure after Iran-backed militias injure 3 Americans; U.S. fires back with airstrikes

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The Biden administration faced renewed pressure Tuesday for stronger retaliation against Iran-backed militias in the Middle East after a Christmas Day drone attack in Iraq left three American troops injured, one of them in critical condition.

The drone attack by the Shiite group Kataib Hezbollah, which has direct links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, led to a round of retaliatory airstrikes by U.S. forces against militia targets in Iraq. It was the latest in a series of direct clashes between the two sides. Pentagon officials stressed that they would do whatever was necessary to protect U.S. forces and said the late-night strikes Monday should send a clear message.

“These precision strikes are a response to a series of attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias, including an attack by Iran-affiliated Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups on Erbil Air Base [in Iraq] earlier today,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Monday night.

The Pentagon chief said the strikes were “intended to disrupt and degrade capabilities of the Iran-aligned militia groups directly responsible” for the attack.

“Let me be clear: The president and I will not hesitate to take necessary action to defend the United States, our troops and our interests. There is no higher priority,” Mr. Austin said.

He said the U.S. does “not seek to escalate conflict in the region” but is “fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities.”

Critics say the administration must go further. In an interview with Fox Business on Tuesday, Rep. Robert Wittman, Virginia Republican, questioned why the administration is reluctant to strike when it appears clear the U.S. knows the exact locations of the militias’ weapon depots.

“There have been over 90 attacks by Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. That is absolutely unacceptable. What the United States policy should be, and the Biden administration has not done, is to be preemptive. That is to take out capabilities that we know are being used against U.S. interests in the region,” Mr. Wittman said.

“Retaliatory strikes are a reaction. We need to be proactive. We need to go after where we know these attacks are coming from. We know what these efforts are,” he said. “We’ve seen it over the past several months. Why we wait for them to now critically wound an American soldier in the region before we respond is unacceptable.”

Mr. Biden was briefed shortly after the initial Christmas morning attack in Iraq, White House officials said. Within a few hours, he was presented with options to strike back against Kataib Hezbollah.

The president “directed strikes against three locations utilized by Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups focused specifically on unmanned aerial drone activities,” White National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

“The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing should these attacks continue,” she said.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees America’s military presence in the region, said early indications show the U.S. strikes “destroyed the targeted facilities and likely killed a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants.”

Before the strike in Iraq, attacks by Iran-backed militias wounded at least 21 U.S. service members and led to the death of one American contractor from a cardiac incident while sheltering in place.

Tensions between the two nations are near their highest point since early 2020 when a U.S. airstrike killed top Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Iranian officials on Tuesday lobbed more threats toward Israel. On Monday, Iranian state media reported that an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed Iranian Brig. Gen. Seyed Razi Mousavi, a senior military adviser of the IRGC. Israel is fighting a war against the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which Tehran also backs.

Iranian officials vowed revenge.

“The Israeli regime should wait for the retribution of its recent terrorist attack. Waiting for the time to pay the price will torture Zionists and their elements to death,” Brig. Gen. Reza Talaei-Nik, an Iranian Defense Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Tehran, according to state-run media.

The rising tension between Iran and the U.S., and its crucial ally Israel, has added fuel to Middle East violence.

U.S. forces over the weekend shot down at least four attack drones launched by Houthi rebels operating in Yemen. The Houthis are also backed by Iran. The drones were headed toward an American warship operating in the Red Sea.

Also in the Red Sea, which lies between Africa and Asia, a Houthi drone hit a commercial oil tanker. The multiple incidents raise questions about the ability of the U.S. and its partners to stop the Houthi attacks. Another round of incidents on Tuesday only fueled those questions.

CENTCOM said U.S. military assets shot down 12 one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles, and two land-attack cruise missiles in the southern Red Sea that Houthis fired over 10 hours Tuesday. No injuries or damage to ships were reported in the area, officials said.

To prevent such attacks, Pentagon officials last week announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a maritime highway patrol with the mission of keeping the peace in the region.

More than 20 nations have signed on to the mission, Defense Department officials said, though its success is unclear.

“This is an international problem that requires an international response. We will continue to work with this coalition of the willing, and all countries will be able to contribute what they feel that they can,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters last week.

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