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The United States warned that it would continue to target militants allied with Iran after it carried out two of the largest waves of strikes since the war between Israel and Hamas led to hostilities across the Middle East.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that a series of strikes against targets linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Syria on Friday were “the beginning, not the end” of Washington’s response.
The United States launched those attacks – which hit 85 targets at seven facilities – after a drone strike on a base on the Jordanian-Syrian border that killed three American soldiers last weekend. The Biden administration launched a second wave of strikes on Saturday against Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are attacking US commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea.
Sullivan told NBC: “We intend to launch additional strikes and additional measures to continue sending a clear message that the United States will respond when our forces are attacked or when people are killed.” “We believe that the strikes had a good effect in weakening the capabilities of these militias to attack us.”
The successive attacks confirmed how the Biden administration is intensifying its response to armed attacks against American forces and their interests in the region after the killing of American soldiers in a drone strike.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said he wants to avoid an all-out regional conflict after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas sparked hostilities across the region. But the weekend strikes highlighted the delicate balance Biden is trying to maintain as he seeks to use military deterrence and diplomacy to contain hostilities.
Washington is under pressure to respond to armed attacks allied with Iran, but it is working to calibrate its response to avoid further escalation that would push US forces deeper into the fighting.
Iran-aligned militants have launched more than 160 missile and drone strikes against US forces in Iraq and Syria since mid-October. There are about 2,500 US troops in Iraq and about 900 in Syria where they are deployed to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, the jihadist group.
Meanwhile, the Houthis launched dozens of attacks against commercial ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, severely disrupting traffic through one of the world's most important maritime trade routes.
In a joint statement, the US, UK and six other countries said their “goal remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea.”
The statement added: “But let us reiterate our warning to the Houthi leadership: We will not hesitate to continue defending lives and the free flow of trade in one of the world's most important waterways in the face of continuing threats.”
A military spokesman for the Houthi group said on Sunday that the rebel group would not be deterred, adding that the strikes on Yemen “will not pass without a response and consequences.”
The US military said it launched another strike “in self-defense” in the early hours of Sunday against a Houthi anti-ship missile that was being prepared for launch.
For weeks, the United States has been responding to countless attacks by Iran-allied militants with targeted strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. But Friday's strikes were by far its largest attack in the past three months — and the first to target facilities linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Iran and Iraq, which said 16 people, including civilians, were killed in Friday's attacks, denounced the US action and warned that it could lead to further instability in the region.
Sullivan said that the United States had “no confirmation of civilian casualties.”
Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that the wave of US strikes over the weekend “contributes to chaos, insecurity and instability.”
Tehran said that the Islamic Republic does not want a direct conflict with the United States and Israel or a regional war. Iran insists that the armed groups it supports act independently, but also praises their actions, while criticizing Israel and the United States.
Tehran did not announce any casualties in the US strikes and did not make any threats of response.
“Iran’s strategic policy has not been a war with the United States, and it has certainly not changed,” says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist former Iranian vice president.
Both the Houthis and militants in Iraq and Syria are part of the so-called axis of resistance in Iran. They say their attacks are in response to the Israeli attack on Hamas in Gaza, which killed more than 27,000 people, according to Palestinian officials.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese movement that is Iran's most powerful proxy, also exchanged fire on an almost daily basis with Israeli forces across Israel's northern border amid fears that these clashes could escalate into a full-blown conflict.
The war broke out between Israel and Hamas after the attack launched by the Palestinian movement on October 7 on southern Israel, which led to the killing of about 1,200 people, according to Israel.
Emile Hakim, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the United States was at risk of falling into a “tit-for-tat spiral.”
He added that the United States can still prevent this cycle that leads to all-out war, but “over time it will lead to the erosion of its position in the region, which is what we are already seeing in Iraq.”
“Its enemies have choices, space and time, and they can decide when to raise tensions — and they also have largely supportive constituencies that are angry about the Gaza war,” Al-Hakim said. “The only way the United States can end this cycle is to move quickly to the diplomatic track to end the Israeli war in Gaza.”
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