US blames Iran-backed militia for death of 3 soldiers in Jordan

Three U.S. soldiers were killed in Jordan on Sunday and at least 34 were injured in what the Biden administration said was a drone strike by an Iran-backed militia, the first known U.S. military death by enemy fire in the unrest that has spilled over from Israel’s war with Hamas.

The attack took place at a remote logistics post in northeastern Jordan called Tower 22 where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet. A one-way attack drone crashed near the outpost’s housing units, causing injuries ranging from minor cuts to brain trauma, a US military official said.

But the deaths of US service members, most of whom were reservists, will almost certainly increase pressure on President Biden to retaliate more forcefully as conflict rises in the Middle East following the Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people in Israel.

“Three US service members were killed – and many wounded – during a drone attack on our forces stationed in northeastern Jordan near the Syrian border,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Sunday. “While we are still gathering the facts about this attack, we know that it was carried out by radical Iranian-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq.”

Speaking later in Columbia, SC, Mr. Biden said: “We have lost three brave souls.” The president then led a moment of silence, before adding: “We will respond.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III also held Iranian-backed militias responsible for continuing attacks on American troops in the region, but did not say which country the attack was launched from. “The president and I will not tolerate attacks on American forces, and we will take whatever action is necessary to defend the United States, our troops and our interests,” Mr. Austin said.

The Pentagon declined to identify the dead service members or their units until family members have been notified. The military’s Central Command said in a statement that eight injured service members had been transferred to “higher level care” outside the country, which other officials said was in Iraq. Central Command said it expects the number of injured to “fluctuate” as additional service members seek treatment.

In a statement, Iran-backed militias calling themselves the Axis of Resistance claimed responsibility for the attack on the base in a remote desert region of Jordan, saying it was “a continuation of our approach to resist the US occupation forces in Iraq and the region.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani told a press conference on Monday that the militias “do not take orders” from Iran and act independently to oppose “any aggression and occupation.” He said accusations that Iran ordered the attack were “baseless” and blamed Israel and the United States for fueling instability in the region.

The drone strike came as Israel and Hezbollah, another Iranian ally, exchanged fire across the Lebanese border. Yemen’s Houthi militia, also backed by Iran, fired missiles and drones at commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, calling it retaliation for Israel’s bombing of Gaza. The United States and its allies fired back, striking inside Yemen at least 10 times.

And on Jan. 20, at least four U.S. service members stationed in western Iraq were injured when their airbase came under heavy rocket and missile fire from what U.S. officials said were Iranian-backed militias. It was the latest of at least 164 strikes by Iranian-backed militias against US troops in Syria, Iraq and Jordan since the October 7 attack.

Until Sunday’s deadly attack, senior administration officials said only luck had spared the United States from more serious casualties. On October 25, one drone loaded with explosives landed on a barracks at the Erbil Air Base in Iraq. It turned out to be a mistake, but several members of the military would likely have been injured or killed if it had exploded, a senior military official said.

A drone strike in Jordan on Sunday showed that Iranian-backed militias — whether in Iran or Syria, or the Houthis in Yemen — remain capable of inflicting serious damage on American troops despite efforts by the U.S. military to weaken them and avoid a broader conflict, possibly with itself. Iran.

“We don’t want to go down a path of greater escalation that leads to a much broader conflict within the region,” Gen. Charles K. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.

Asked in a pre-taped session on ABC News’ “This Week” if he thought Iran wanted war with the United States, General Brown, echoing assessments by US intelligence agencies, said: “No, I don’t think so.”

In his statement, Mr. Biden called the fallen American troops “patriots in the highest sense” and said they “risk their own safety for the safety of their fellow Americans, our allies and partners with whom we stand in the fight against terrorism. It is a fight we will not stop. ”

Last Sunday, the Pentagon declared two Navy SEALs dead after they went missing 10 days earlier during an operation at sea to intercept weapons from Iran destined for Houthi fighters.

The naval commandos were the first known US deaths in Washington’s campaign against the Houthis, who have launched dozens of attacks on ships in the Red Sea from territory they control in the north of the country since November, roiling the global shipping industry.

The Americans killed Sunday were the first known deaths by hostile fire in the region since the October 7 attack by Hamas.

About 350 Army and Air Force personnel are deployed to the Tower 22 border outpost. It serves as a logistics center and supply hub for nearby Al Tanf Garrison in southeastern Syria, where U.S. troops are working with local Syrian partners to fight the remnants of the Islamic State. The United States also has about 2,000 troops stationed at an air base in Azraq, Jordan, as well as special operations forces and military trainers.

“By taking possession of Jordanian soil, Iran may sour another American relationship in the region,” said Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The Jordanian government condemned the attack in a statement and said the Americans were “cooperating with Jordan to fight terrorism and secure the border.”

It was unclear Sunday why air defenses at the outpost failed to intercept the drone, which former military commanders said was the first known attack on the site since attacks on U.S. forces began shortly after the Oct. 7 incursion.

In 2016, the US military turned Al Tanf into a small base. It lies on the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway – a vital link for forces backed by Syria’s ally Iran in a corridor that stretches from Iran’s capital, Tehran, across Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon.

The Rukban refugee camp, with about 8,000 inhabitants, is located near Al Tanf and Tower 22.

Troops in Al Tanf have come under fire from Iranian-backed militias before. The Defense Ministry said last fall that 21 soldiers had suffered minor injuries but had returned to duty after the Oct. 17-18 attacks on Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq and Al Tanf Garrison.

Congressional Republicans who have criticized Biden’s dealings with Iran and its proxies seized on Sunday’s attack to demand that the administration take stronger action.

“We must respond to these repeated attacks by Iran and its proxies with a direct strike against Iranian targets and its leadership,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “The Biden administration’s responses so far have only provoked new attacks.”

He contributed to the reporting Alyssa J. Rubin from New York, Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Charlotte, NC, Peter Baker and By Julian E. Barnes of Washington and Rana Sweis of Amman, Jordan.

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