President Joe Biden has ordered retaliatory airstrikes against Iran-backed militant groups after a drone strike in northern Iraq wounded three US soldiers.
National Security Council spokesman Adrian Watson said one of the US troops was critically wounded in the attack earlier Monday. Hezbollah and its affiliated groups, under the umbrella of Iranian-backed militias, claimed responsibility for the attack, which used a one-way attack drone.
White House National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan issued a warning about Monday's attack as Biden, who is celebrating Christmas at the presidential palace in Camp David, Maryland. An attack on an air base used by US troops in Erbil.
Sullivan consulted with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Biden's deputy national security adviser, John Feiner, was with the president at Camp David and convened top aides to review options, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
Within hours, Biden convened his National Security Council for a call, in which Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. CQ Brown, briefed Biden on response options. The official said Biden chose to target three locations used by Hezbollah and affiliated groups.
The U.S. strikes came at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday in Iraq, less than 13 hours after U.S. personnel were attacked. According to the US Central Command, the retaliatory strikes at the three bases “destroyed the targeted facilities and may have killed several potential Hezbollah fighters.”
“The president has not placed a higher priority than the safety of American personnel who are serving in harm's way,” Watson said. “If these attacks continue, the United States will act at a time and in a way we choose.”
The latest attack on U.S. troops follows an escalation of threats and actions against U.S. forces in the region on Oct. 7 after a Hamas attack on Israel sparked a devastating war in Gaza.
Last month, following a short-range ballistic missile attack on US forces at Al-Assad Air Base in western Iraq, US warplanes were forced to attack Hezbollah's operations center and command and control hub. Iranian-backed militants also carried out a drone attack on the same air base in October, causing minor injuries.
The U.S. has blamed Iran, which finances and trains Hamas, for attacks by Yemen's Houthi militias against commercial and military vessels through a critical shipping chokepoint in the Red Sea.
The Biden administration sought to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from becoming a broader regional conflict that would open up new fronts in the Israeli conflict or draw the United States directly into it. The administration's measured response — not every attempt on U.S. troops has been met with a counterattack — has drawn criticism from Republicans.
There are thousands of troops in Iraq training Iraqi forces to fight the remnants of the Islamic State group, and hundreds of troops in Syria, mostly on missions against IS. They have come under dozens of attacks, but no casualties so far, and since the war began on October 7, the US has claimed responsibility for pro-Iranian groups.
“While we are not seeking to escalate conflict in the region, we are determined and fully prepared to take any further action necessary to protect our people and our facilities,” Austin said in a statement.