Three U.S. service members were killed in Jordan on Sunday and at least 34 others were wounded in what the Biden administration said was a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the first known U.S. military deaths from hostile fire in the unrest spreading from the territory of Israel. war with Hamas.
The attack occurred at a remote logistics outpost in northeastern Jordan called Tower 22, where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan converge. The one-way attack drone struck near housing at the outpost, causing injuries ranging from minor cuts to brain trauma, a U.S. military official said.
But the deaths of U.S. service members, most of whom were military reservists, will almost certainly increase pressure on President Biden to retaliate more forcefully as conflicts in the Middle East grow after the attacks. on October 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel.
“Three U.S. service members were killed, and many wounded, during an unmanned airstrike against our forces stationed in northeastern Jordan, near the Syrian border,” Biden said in a statement Sunday. “While we are still gathering the facts of this attack, we know it was carried out by radical Iranian-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq.”
Speaking later in Columbia, South Carolina, Biden said, “We lost three brave souls.” The president then observed a moment of silence before adding: “We will respond.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III also blamed Iranian-backed militias for continued attacks on U.S. troops in the region, but did not identify which country the attack was launched from. “The president and I will not tolerate attacks on American forces and will take all necessary measures to defend the United States, our troops and our interests,” Austin said.
The Pentagon declined to identify the service members who died or their units pending notification of next of kin. The Army’s Central Command said in a statement that eight of the wounded service members were flown to “high-level care” out of the country, which other officials said was in Iraq. Central Command said it expected the number of wounded to “fluctuate” as additional service members seek treatment.
In a statement, Iranian-backed militias calling themselves the Axis of Resistance claimed responsibility for the attack on the base in a remote desert area of Jordan, saying it was a “continuation of our approach to resist US occupation forces in Iraq and the region.”
A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said at a news 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 had ordered the attack were “baseless” and blamed Israel and the United States for fueling instability in the region.
The drone attack came as Israel and Hezbollah, another Iranian ally, exchanged fire across the Lebanese border. A Houthi militia in Yemen, also backed by Iran, has fired missiles and drones at commercial ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, calling it retaliation for the Israeli bombing of Gaza. The United States and its allies have responded, 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 air base came under intense rocket and missile attack by what U.S. officials said were Iranian-backed militias. It was the latest of at least 164 attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq and Jordan since the Oct. 7 attacks.
Until Sunday’s deadly attack, senior administration officials said only luck had prevented the United States from suffering more serious casualties. A drone loaded with explosives landed at a barracks at the Erbil air base in Iraq on October 25. It turned out to be a failure, but several service members would most likely have been injured or killed if it had exploded, a senior military official said. .
The drone strike in Jordan on Sunday demonstrated that Iranian-backed militias – whether in Iran or Syria, or the Houthis in Yemen – were still capable of inflicting serious consequences on US troops despite the efforts of the US military. to weaken them and avoid falling into a broader war. conflict, possibly with Iran itself.
“We do not want to follow a path of further escalation that leads to a much broader conflict within the region,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.
Asked in a pre-recorded session on ABC News’ “This Week” if he thought Iran wanted a war with the United States, General Brown, echoing assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies, said: “No, I don’t. believe”.
In his statement, Biden called the fallen U.S. troops “patriots in the highest sense” and said they were “risking their own safety for the safety of their fellow Americans and our allies and partners with whom we stand in the fight against terrorism. It is a fight that we will not stop.”
Last Sunday, the Pentagon declared two members of the Navy SEAL dead after they disappeared 10 days earlier during an operation at sea to intercept weapons from Iran aimed at Houthi fighters.
The Navy commandos were the first known American deaths in Washington’s campaign against the Houthis, who from territory they control in the country’s north have launched dozens of attacks on ships in the Red Sea since November, roiling the global shipping industry. .
The Americans killed Sunday were the first known deaths from hostile fire in the region since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
About 350 Army and Air Force personnel are deployed at the Tower 22 border post. It serves as a logistics and resupply center for the nearby Al Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, where U.S. troops work 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 attacking Jordanian soil, Iran exacerbates another US relationship in the region,” said Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington.
In a statement, the Jordanian government condemned the attack and said the Americans were “cooperating with Jordan to combat 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 appeared to be the first known assault on the site since attacks on U.S. forces began shortly after the U.S. incursion. October 7.
In 2016, the US military converted Al Tanf into a small base. It is on the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway, a vital link for forces backed by Syria’s ally Iran, in a corridor running from the Iranian capital, Tehran, through Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon.
The Rukban refugee camp, with about 8,000 residents, is near Al Tanf and Tower 22.
Troops in Al Tanf have previously been attacked by Iranian-backed militias. The Defense Department said last fall that 21 soldiers had suffered minor injuries but returned to duty after the Oct. 17-18 attacks on Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq and the Al Tanf garrison.
Congressional Republicans who have criticized Biden’s deal with Iran and his 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 by directly attacking Iranian targets and their leaders,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “The Biden administration’s responses so far have only provoked more attacks.”
The report was contributed by Alissa Rubin from New York, Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Charlotte, North Carolina, Peter Panadero and Julian E. Barnes of Washington and Rana Sweis of Amman, Jordan.