A US airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group, killing one of their militiamen and injuring several others, an Iraqi militia official said on Friday.
The Pentagon said the strikes were in retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed a civilian contractor and injured a US serviceman and other coalition troops.
The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that strikes against Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal and Qaim on the Iraqi side. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about the attack. Syria war watch groups said the strikes hit trucks carrying weapons to an Iranian-backed militia base in Boukamal.
“I am confident in the target we sought, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington, shortly after the airstrikes that took place. held Thursday evening, Eastern Standard Time.
The airstrike was the first military action taken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks stressed its intention to focus more on challenges posed by China, even as threats in the Middle East persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to expand US military engagement in the region, but rather demonstrate a willingness to defend US troops in Iraq.
The United States has in the past targeted installations in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has accused of numerous attacks targeting American personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separated from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were being swept away by trucks entering Syrian territories from the Syrian Arab Republic. Iraq. The group said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi coordination group made up mostly of Shia paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The report could not be independently verified.
Defense Secretary Austin said he was “confident” that the United States had retaliated against “the same Shiite militants who carried out the strikes”, referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq which killed a civilian contractor and injured a US serviceman and other coalition personnel.
Austin said he recommended the action to President Joe Biden.
“We have said on several occasions that we will respond on our schedule,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”
Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportionate military response” combined with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.
“The operation sends a clear message: President Biden will act to protect US and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.
Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed several facilities at a border checkpoint used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada.
More details were not immediately available.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the American attack as a violation of international law.
“The Charter of the United Nations makes it clear that the use of military force on the territory of a sovereign foreign state is only lawful in response to an armed attack against the defending state for which the target state is responsible”, she declared. “None of these elements are encountered in the strike in Syria.”
Officials in the Biden administration condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the town of Erbil in the Kurdish-ruled semi-autonomous region of Iraq, but as late as this week, officials reported indicated that they had not determined with certainty who had led her. Officials noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups were responsible for numerous rocket attacks targeting US personnel or facilities in Iraq.
Kirby had said on Tuesday that Iraq was tasked with investigating the February 15 attack. He added that US officials were then unable to give “some attribution as to who was behind these attacks.”
A little-known Shiite militant group calling themselves Saraya Alwiya al-Dam, in Arabic for the Blood Guardians Brigade, claimed responsibility for the February 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in the Baghdad Green Zone appeared to target the U.S. Embassy compound, but no one was injured.
Iran said this week that it had no connection with the Blood Guardian Brigade. Iran-backed groups have split considerably since the US-led strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad over a year ago . Both have played key roles in commanding and controlling a wide range of Iranian-backed groups operating in Iraq.
Since their deaths, the militias have grown increasingly unruly. Some analysts argue that armed groups have split as a tactic to claim attacks under different names to hide their involvement.
The frequency of attacks by Shiite militias against US targets in Iraq declined late last year before Biden’s inauguration.
The United States, under the previous Trump administration, accused Iranian-backed groups of carrying out multiple attacks in Iraq.
Trump had said the death of an American entrepreneur would be a red line and cause an American escalation in Iraq. The murder in December 2019 of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil which culminated in the US murder of Iranian commander Soleimani and brought Iraq on the verge of a proxy war.
US forces have been drastically reduced in Iraq to 2,500 and are no longer participating in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.