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US forces hit Iran-backed targets in Iraq and Syria on Friday in what will be a wave of strikes in retaliation for the deaths of three American troops who were killed in Jordan in a drone attack, President Joe Biden said.
Central Command said the strikes hit more than 85 targets linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the militia groups it supports. Four of the strikes were in Syria and three in Iraq.
“This afternoon, at my direction, US military forces struck targets at facilities in Iraq and Syria that the IRGC and affiliated militia use to attack US forces,” Mr Biden said in a statement, adding that this was only the first in a series of strikes.
“Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing.”
The Jordan attack, which occurred on Sunday, was the latest in a series of strikes on US personnel carried out by Iran-backed militant groups in the Middle East following the start of the Israel-Gaza war. The Pentagon says Iran-backed militias have attacked US forces more than 160 times.
It was the first to hit a target in Jordan and the first to result in US fatalities. The drone exploded in the barracks of the US base while troops were still asleep, wounding more than 40, the Pentagon said.
Mr Biden, who is being goaded by hawkish Republicans to strike Iran itself, said the US does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else.
“But let all those who might seek to do us harm know this: if you harm an American, we will respond,” he said.
Centcom said the targets included “command and control operations centres, intelligence centres, rockets and missiles”, among others that made up a logistics and munitions supply chain for militia groups and “their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against US and coalition forces”.
Lt Gen Douglas Sims told reporters the strikes “hit exactly what we meant to hit, with a number of secondary explosions associated with the ammunition and logistics locations”.
He said the timing of the strikes was chosen according to the weather. More than 125 precision munitions were used, some deployed from B-1 bombers that had flown from the US.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported that at least 18 pro-Iran fighters were killed in the strikes.
US officials said targets were chosen to avoid civilian casualties. Lt Gen Sims said militiamen were probably killed.
“We know that there are militants that use these locations, IRGC, as well as Iranian-allied militia group personnel who use these locations. We made these strikes tonight with an idea that there would likely be casualties associated with people inside those facilities,” he said.
The Biden administration had been signalling for days that it would hit Iran-backed targets even though Kataib Hezbollah, part of the Iran-backed umbrella group blamed for the Jordan attack, said they would stand down and stop attacking US troops.
None of the strikes occurred in Iran itself, US officials stressed.
“The goal here is to get these attacks to stop. We're not looking for a war with Iran,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
He added that the US had informed Iraq about the strikes ahead of time.
Officials told The National that at least two civilians were killed in Iraq, with the death toll expected to rise.
In the town of Al Qaim in western Iraq, the US strikes hit an ammunition depot and three houses in Al Sikak neighbourhood that had been used as headquarters for Kataib Hezbollah, according to two security officials.
A number of houses were slightly damaged and local officials used mosque loudspeakers to tell residents to leave their homes, the officials added.
The strikes are likely to further inflame anger in Iraq over the continued foreign troop presence in the country.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani is under intense political pressure to bring an end to the US-led international coalition that was stood up in Baghdad in 2014 to fight ISIS.
Maj Gen Yahya Rasool, the Prime Minister's military spokesman, said the strikes are “considered a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty”.
He added that they “undermine the Iraqi government efforts” to ease tension, warning of “grave consequences on the security and stability of Iraq and the region”.
Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said it was important the US response not be overly antagonistic towards Iraq.
Iraqis react to January 24 US air strikes – video
“The one thing that America does not want to do is to kill prominent Iraqis because the Iraqi government is going through the strategic reassessment with the United States and any killing of prominent Iraqis will cause an outcry,” Mr Landis told The National.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy institute in Canberra, said he was not convinced the strikes would deter Iran.
“The fact that the US has been telegraphing its moves days ahead, giving the Iranians time to withdraw key personnel from Iraq and Syria, suggests that it's not designed to deter, it's designed to degrade,” Mr Davis told The National.
Congressman Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the strikes were “long overdue following a delay that allowed our enemies to prepare”.
“The Biden administration must be decisive with sustained retaliatory strikes and begin to enforce oil and other sanctions to cut off the source of terror funding,” Mr McCaul said.
The attack in Jordan was claimed by Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella organisation of Iran-backed armed groups operating in the country.
Following the attack, Biden administration officials said the US did not want war with Iran but would take action if attacked.
With the US now bombing targets in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as Iran-backed groups attack US forces and international shipping in the Red Sea, some in Congress say it is time Mr Biden asks for new war power authorities.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Ben Cardin said he sees “no authority left” in the post 9/11 war authorities that the Biden administration is using for military action in the Middle East.
A lot of the groups that are targets now did not exist in 2001, he said.