U.S. war on Iran-backed militias escalates despite diplomacy with Tehran


The Pentagon on Monday threatened Iran with “serious consequences” if it continues funding militias that target American troops in the Middle East, once again raising questions about President Biden’s compartmentalized strategy of negotiating with the Islamic republic on a new nuclear deal while waging war on paramilitary forces closely allied to Tehran.

The Defense Department issued its warning less than 24 hours after the president ordered a series of airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border against the Iraqi Shiite militias Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which boast thousands of fighters and have routinely targeted U.S. personnel with drones, rockets and other weaponry. Pentagon officials said the groups have carried out at least five drone operations since April, along with numerous rocket attacks.

Those assaults have continued even as U.S. and international diplomats work with Iran to reinstate an Obama-era deal that limited Tehran‘s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief. President Trump repudiated that pact in 2018 partially because it did not address Iran‘s support of dangerous militias and its funding of major terrorist outfits.

Despite its defense alliance with Washington, Iraq’s government condemned the strikes as a violation of its sovereignty. Baghdad has long feared Iraq will wind up as the battleground if the U.S. and Iran come to blows.

The semi-official umbrella organization for Iraq’s Shiite militia groups, known as the PMF, also harshly denounced the “sinful” attacks and said its members were at the border as part of the united fight against the Islamic State group. In a statement carried by the Iraqi News Agency, the PMF said four “martyrs” were killed in the U.S. strikes, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.

Iran‘s financial and logistical support of such groups has been largely absent from the administration’s latest round of nuclear talks with Tehran in Geneva. But it has been increasingly difficult to separate the two issues, particularly as the Pentagon sharpens its rhetoric toward Iran and hostilities between the two sides threaten to overshadow diplomacy.

The strikes Sunday “were necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Jessica McNulty said in a statement. “Through these and other means, we seek to make clear to Iran and Iran-backed militia groups that there will be serious consequences if they continue to attack, or to arm, fund and train militia groups that attack our people. We will take necessary and appropriate measures to defend U.S. personnel, partners and allies in the region.”

Pentagon officials said the mission targeted three operational and weapons storage facilities: two in Syria and one in Iraq. In videos of Air Force F-15 and F-16 aircraft strikes, the Pentagon described one target as a coordination center for the shipment and transfer of advanced conventional weapons, The Associated Press reported.

U.S. military leaders cast the series of airstrikes as a defensive operation, suggesting that the Pentagon and intelligence officials believed attacks on American troops and personnel were imminent. Mr. Biden ordered similar airstrikes in February during a string of attacks on Americans stationed in Iraq.

Although it’s not entirely clear how much day-to-day operational control the Iranian government wields over Iraq-based Shiite militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, the group has deep ties to Iran’s Quds Force, the most elite branch of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Kata’ib Hezbollah founder and top commander Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis was traveling with Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani when their vehicle was hit in a U.S. airstrike in January 2020. Even if Tehran isn’t directly ordering individual drone attacks on U.S. personnel, foreign policy specialists say, it’s clear that Iran has at least tacitly approved the militias’ strategy of harassing American troops and contractors and believes such a tack may give the nation more leverage at the nuclear negotiating table.

“There are groups that are basically extensions of the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, and that’s what Kata’ib is,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militias in the region.

Iran feels “very reassured that the U.S. is desperate to de-escalate and that they can get away with low-level harassment and the occasional killing of an American,” Mr. Knights said. “For me, what they’ve been testing the last few months is: ‘Can we negotiate with these guys at the same time we’re firing drones and rockets at them?’ What they’ve obviously learned is, ‘Yes, we can.’”

Key Republicans echoed that sentiment Monday and said U.S. negotiations with Iran over a new nuclear deal could put American troops in greater danger.

“Rather than consistently holding Iran accountable for its terrorism, the administration is desperately working to lift sanctions on Iran and return to the failed Iran nuclear deal, which will financially enrich Iran and the very proxies that are targeting Americans for murder,” Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. 

Indeed, there is little doubt that Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militias have plenty of American blood on their hands. At least 600 Americans were killed by Iranian-built roadside bombs in Iraq, according to some estimates. Many of those bombs, Mr. Knights said, could be traced back to Kata’ib Hezbollah.

“There’s a lot of justice to be served up for this group,” he said. “This group is responsible for hundreds of American deaths, at the very least.”

In addition to its bomb-making, the militia has about 10,000 trained fighters in its ranks, along with an arsenal of heavy weapons, drones, mortars and tanks. Sunday night’s airstrikes may temporarily disrupt the group’s ability to carry out local attacks, but analysts say it would require a much more intense military campaign to truly take the group off the battlefield for good.

Against that backdrop, the administration has mostly avoided linking Iran‘s support for paramilitary groups with the international push for an updated nuclear deal.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the most recent airstrikes were to limit the risk of escalation between the U.S. and Iran.

“The attacks against our troops need to stop. And that is why the president ordered the operation last night in self-defense of our personnel,” she told reporters.

Iran condemned the U.S. strike in relatively restrained terms. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a press briefing in Tehran that the U.S. government “is still following a wrong path in the region” by sticking with the pressure tactics of the Trump administration.

“Unfortunately, what we see is that the [Biden] administration continues with the failed American policies in the region not only on the issue of sanctions, but also on regional policies,” the spokesman said.

Jeff Mordock and David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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