US stages retaliatory airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, officials say

U.S. personnel suffered brain injuries in a ballistic missile attack Sunday.

January 23, 2024, 4:56 PM

The U.S. on Tuesday staged airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq in retaliation for ballistic missiles fired Sunday against Al-Assad airbase that left four U.S. personnel with traumatic brain injuries, two U.S. officials said.

"Today, at President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces conducted necessary and proportionate strikes on three facilities used by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group and other Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq. These precision strikes are in direct response to a series of escalatory attacks against U.S. and Coalition personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

"The President and I will not hesitate to take necessary action to defend them and our interests,"" he said. "We do not seek to escalate conflict in the region. We are fully prepared to take further measures to protect our people and our facilities. We call on these groups and their Iranian sponsors to immediately cease these attacks."

Sunday’s attack on U.S. troops at the sprawling Iraqi airbase in western Iraq involved 17 ballistic missiles and rockets and was launched from inside Iraq, according to three U.S. officials.

While the majority of the projectiles were blocked, two ballistic missiles were able to get through U.S. air defenses, the officials said.

PHOTO: This picture taken on July 8, 2021 shows a view of the Ain al-Assad air base hosting US forces in Iraq in the western Anbar province, a day after fourteen rockets were fired at the base.
This picture taken on July 8, 2021 shows a view of the Ain al-Assad air base hosting US forces in Iraq in the western Anbar province, a day after fourteen rockets were fired at the base. Iran-backed militants launched ballistic missiles at the base hosting US forces in western Iraq, causing one Iraqi and possible American casualties, the US Central Command said on January 20, 2024.
Ayman Henna/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

The Pentagon said that the attack resulted in structural damage to “noncritical facilities” and that four U.S. service members had returned to their duties after having been evaluated for traumatic brain injuries (TBI), an Iraqi official was also injured in the blasts.

U.S. officials anticipate the possibility that additional service members could step forward with TBI symptoms.

A member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashed al-Shaabi), a powerful pro-Iranian militia, stands guard at the site where two members of the militia, including a commander, were killed in an alleged US airstrike, Jan. 4, 2024, Bagdad.
Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture alliance via Getty Images, FILE

There have been more than 150 rocket and drone attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria since mid-October carried out by Iranian-backed militias claiming they are in support of Palestinians in the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza.

But their use of ballistic missiles, as happened this weekend, was seen as an escalation.

There are still about 2,500 American troops serving in Iraq and 900 in Syria to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State.

However, the continued presence of American troops in Iraq was cast into question by Iraq’s parliament shortly after a U.S. drone strike on January 4 that killed a top leader of one of the Iranian-backed militia groups responsible for the attacks on U.S. forces.

That drone strike and other retaliatory strikes carried out inside Iraq and Syria have so far not deterred the groups from continuing to launch the attacks.

The attacks are a sign of rising tensions in the region for the United States which has also carried out retaliatory strikes in Yemen targeting Houthi militants responsible for more than 30 attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Most recently on Monday, the United States and United Kingdom carried out another major strike against Houthi locations associated with the shipping attacks.

It marked the eighth retaliatory airstrike carried out against Houthi targets since Jan. 11 which U.S. officials say have degraded the Houthis ability to carry out the attacks even as they have continued to do so.

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