BAGHDAD (AP) — A US airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group, killing one of their militiamen and wounding a number of others, an Iraqi militia official said Friday.
The official told The Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah militia, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak of the attack.
The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.
“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington, shortly after the airstrikes which were carried out Thursday evening Eastern Standard Time.
The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq.
The US has in the past targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
Defense Secretary Austin said he was “confident” the US had hit back at the “the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel.
Austin said he had recommended the action to President Joe Biden.
“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” 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” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.
Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada.
Further details were not immediately available.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the US attack as a violation of international law.
“The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible,” she said. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”
Biden administration officials condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted US personnel or facilities in Iraq.
Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the February 15 attack. He added that US officials were not then able to give a “certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks.”
A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Alwiya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the February 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.
Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.
The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against US targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of Biden’s inauguration. The groups are widely seen as proxies of Iran, which is now pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out multiple attacks in Iraq. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.
Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.
US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, LOLITA C. BALDOR, and ROBERT BURNS