After US strikes, White House urges Iraq to end militia threats

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The White House on Sunday urged the Iraqi government to act more quickly against Iran-backed militias operating in the country, after senior officials in Baghdad raised concerns about a wave of airstrikes which was launched by the United States in retaliation for the death of three US soldiers.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that the Iraqi government must “move more aggressively” to end threats from militia groups that have attacked US military positions. The groups, organized under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, have launched at least 165 attacks against US forces since October.

“Three Americans were killed, three soldiers; three families are now grieving,” Kirby said, speaking on “Fox News Sunday.” “The president is not going to sit back and idly just take that. We are going to respond.”

Kirby said that President Biden had approved smaller strikes in response to earlier attacks on US positions and that he was not going to let the deaths of the three soldiers go unanswered. The soldiers — Staff Sgt. William Rivers, 46; Sgt. Breonna Moffett, 23; and Sgt. Kennedy Sanders, 24 – was killed on January 28 when a one-way attack drone crashed into the sleeping quarters at a small base in northeastern Jordan that is close to the borders of Syria and Iraq.

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The strikes on Friday night hit about 85 targets across Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon said, prompting the Iraqi government to summon the top US diplomat, David Pecker, and issue an official note of protest. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said that civilians were killed in the strikes and that Iraq does not want to become an area “for settling scores between rival countries.”

The comments underscored the difficult balancing act that Washington and Baghdad are trying to maintain as the militias, armed and trained by Iran, pressure the United States to leave Iraq.

The Pentagon has about 2,500 US troops in Iraq at the invitation of the government in Baghdad to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State. There are about 900 more US troops in Syria with a similar mission.

The United States and Britain on Saturday launched a new wave of strikes in Yemen, hitting around 35 targets linked to the Houthi rebels who seized control of much of the country in 2014. For months, -Houthi fighters have attacked commercial vessels and US warships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

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Like the militias in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis have linked their attacks to the war in Gaza and US support for the Israeli government. They also receive weapons and training from Iran, US officials said.

There were signs over the weekend that the attacks would continue.

In Syria, two rockets were launched on Saturday against the US military base known as Mission Support Site Euphrates, said Maj. Pete Nguyen, Pentagon spokesman. No one was injured.

In Yemen, Houthi officials said they will respond to the strikes launched against them on Saturday.

“The American-British attack against Yemen will not go unanswered, and we will meet escalation with escalation,” said Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political office. in a social media post early Sunday. He said the Houthis will not stop their attacks on shipping until Israel’s military operations in Gaza end.

Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security adviser, said on ABC News’ “This Week” Sunday that U.S. officials cannot rule out further attacks by groups on U.S. forces.

“The main purpose of the strikes is to remove capabilities from the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria who are attacking our forces and from the Houthis who continue to threaten shipping in the Red Sea,” said Sullivan. “And we believe they have had a positive effect in reducing, reducing the capabilities of the militias and the Houthis. And, as necessary, we will continue to take action.”

Sullivan, in a separate interview on “Inside with Jen Psaki” at MSNBC, said that the United States will also be watching for possible reactions from Iran in the coming weeks. Mr. Biden, he said, is not looking to escalate the conflict.

“How Tehran chooses to proceed from here will be up to them,” Sullivan said. “But we’ll keep a close eye on that, and we’re prepared to deal with whatever comes of it.”

Republicans and some nonpartisan national security experts have criticized the Biden administration for its approach, saying Washington did not do enough to prevent Iran’s role in the attacks.

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Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general who will lead U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East from 2019 to 2022, said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that the United States is “to clearly removed Iran itself from the list of possibilities. targets in this campaign,” and in doing so provide “support and comfort” to Iran.

“I’m not advocating hitting Iran,” McKenzie said. “I’m advocating that they have to be within potential targets … to be at risk. “

McKenzie said there is a “truth” to Iran that may not be directing the specific attacks against US forces. A few years ago, he said, Iran gave broad permission to the militias to attack US positions in Iraq and Syria, creating a structure where the militias do not have to go back to Tehran for approval.

As the Biden administration worked to contain the outcome, it sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East for his fifth trip to the region since October. Blinken will travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank, the State Department said Sunday.

Blinken has tried to prevent a wider expansion of the conflict. He is also working on a long-term postwar plan for Gaza, including an agreement between Arab states and Israel for a unified, Palestinian-led body to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Blinken will work to “establish a more unified, peaceful region that will include lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

But there are still big gaps between Israeli and Arab leaders on Blinken’s road map, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state – something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will not allow.

Blinken will also try to expand humanitarian access in Gaza while Palestinians face conditions close to famine, with a lack of food, medicine and water.

Jennifer Hassan in London, John Hudson in Washington and Kelly Kasulis Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.

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