The White House on Monday defended air strikes launched over the weekend on the facilities of two Iran-backed militia groups on the border between Syria and Iraq, the second such attack by the Biden administration in four months.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said President Joe Biden “feels confident that the strikes that he announced yesterday were necessary, appropriate and deliberate actions designed to limit the risk of escalation”.
The attacks risk stoking tensions in the region just over a week after Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, won Iran’s presidential election.
John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said operational and weapons storage facilities, which were being used to launch drone strikes against US troops and facilities, were targeted in Syria and Iraq.
Kirby said late on Sunday that the air strikes were “defensive” and a response to an “ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting US interests in Iraq”. He added that they were being used by several Iran-backed militias including Kata’ib Hizbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
“The United States took necessary, appropriate and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation — but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” Kirby said.
Psaki said Biden had acted “to defend US personnel” and the White House had notified several members of Congress before the strikes, adding: “We are also in close touch with partners in the region.”
The Iraqi Resistance Co-ordination, an umbrella group which claims to represent pro-Tehran militias, said in a statement that three fighters were killed in the strikes. A spokesperson for Kata’ib Sayid al-Shuhada pledged “open war” with America. Local news reports put the death toll at between four and six.
Iraq’s military also condemned the US attack, calling it “a blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty”, and adding that the country “renews its refusal to be an arena for score-settling”.
Biden first ordered strikes against Iranian-backed militias on the Iraq-Syria border in February after a rocket attack in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil killed a civilian contractor and injured several others, including a member of the US military.
Iraq is home to myriad militant groups that are backed by Iran and which regularly launch rocket and drone attacks against Iraqi bases hosting US troops and American facilities 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 senior Iraqi militia leader, in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said the Biden administration was heading in the wrong direction and following the “failed” policies of its previous president. He added that the US was “disrupting 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 of [following] such emotional behaviours, creating crisis . . . problems and dilemmas for people in the region,” Khatibzadeh told reporters in his weekly press conference on Monday.
The declared aim of many of the militant groups is to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis — heroes to Shia militias. After Soleimani’s death, Iran vowed to drive US forces out of the region.
There are about 2,500 American troops based in Iraq, where US and Iran rivalries play out.
The US strikes on Sunday followed the election of Raisi, a conservative cleric and judiciary chief, which gave regime hardliners control of all branches of the Islamic republic for the first time in almost a decade. Raisi takes up the presidency in August.
The attack comes at a sensitive time as the Biden administration and world powers seek to secure an agreement with Iran that will lead to the US rejoining the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers.
The deal’s remaining signatories — the UK, Germany, France, China and Russia — have held several rounds of talks in Vienna to revive the agreement.
Hostilities between the US and Iran escalated after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed waves of sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Biden has said the US will rejoin the deal and lift many sanctions if Iran returns to full compliance with the agreement. Tehran insists the US must lift all sanctions.
But the Biden administration is also under pressure from US politicians, Israel and Washington’s Arab partners to take a tough line on Iran’s support for regional militias and its missile programme. Iran has vowed not to roll back its support for regional militias or curb expansive missile programmes even if it means the US does not lift sanctions.
Asked about the nuclear deal on Monday, Psaki said: “We continue to believe . . . that Iran is a bad actor in the region, and they have taken part in and supported and participated in problematic, extremely problematic behaviour, in our view.
“At the same time, we [are] . . . seeking the opportunity to move forward on negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, [which] is in our national interest.”
Additional reporting by Monavar Khalaj in Tehran