US kills five militants in Iraq as tally of Iran-backed attacks continues to rise

The US military said Tuesday that it engaged five militants preparing to launch a one-way attack drone yesterday in Iraq, killing all five militants and destroying the drone.

Iran-backed militants have targeted US troops in Iraq and Syria at least 76 times since October 17, according to American defense officials.

“On December 3, near Kirkuk, Iraq, forces assigned to Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) engaged five militants preparing to launch a one-way attack drone,” a statement from the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said.

The US military notified Iraqi Security Forces of the strike and responded to the location, according to CENTCOM, who said the Iraqis confirmed the death of the militants and the destruction of the drone.

“The United States will continue to defend US and coalition personnel from attacks,” the CENTCOM statement said.

There have been 36 attacks in Iraq and another 40 in Syria by a mix of one-way attack drones, rockets, and close-range ballistic missiles.

But most of these attacks were successfully disrupted, and most failed to reach their targets, “thanks to our robust defenses,” a US defense official said.

The escalation of US troops being targeted began in the days after Washington rushed weapons into Israel and deployed fighter jets, thousands of troops and aircraft carriers to the Middle East in response to the Hamas attack.

While these attacks have mostly been limited to Iraq and Syria, US warships have come into close proximity to missiles and projectiles fired by Iran-backed groups, including the Houthi militants in Yemen.

On Monday, a US defense official said the USS Carney destroyed one Houthi drone headed in their direction in the Red Sea. The Carney also saw at least one ballistic missile fired at a civilian commercial vessel, and, while assisting the Unity Explorer, shot down another Houthi drone. That came one day after the US military intercepted an Iranian UAV near the Eisenhower aircraft carrier, which a US defense official said was conducting flight operations and made the UAV’s physical presence unsafe for any aircraft also in the immediate airspace.

The US military said it had every reason to believe Monday’s four attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea were “fully enabled” by Iran despite being launched by Yemen’s Houthis, adding that the US would consider “all appropriate responses.”

The debate has ensued in Washington about how best to respond to Iran – which the US holds accountable for these attacks – without dragging the US into another conflict in the Middle East.

President Joe Biden has ordered less than a handful of retaliatory attacks on Iran-backed targets inside Syria and one in Iraq. A US commander in the region ordered a separate attack after militants were spotted attacking US troops inside Iraq last month.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said it reserves the right to respond at a time and place of its choosing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, has called on Iraqi officials to protect US troops in the country who are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government.

But following the latest US response to defend its troops, Iraq’s prime minister publicly criticized the US for “violating Iraqi sovereignty” while affirming that Bagdad was committed to ensuring the safety of international forces in Iraq.

From November 17 to 21, there were six separate attacks on US troops in Iraq. The US then responded for the first time on November 21 inside Iraq after conducting three similar retaliatory operations inside Syria. The Pentagon said the military attacked two facilities used by Iran-backed militants, and it is believed that several of them were killed.

An attack by the US a day earlier was the first counter-battery operation conducted after an AC-130 aircraft was in the area and destroyed a vehicle used by the militants to launch a ballistic missile at US forces at Ain al-Asad airbase.

The US response did not stop Iran-backed groups from targeting Americans in Iraq and Syria, though. On November 22, a one-way attack drone was launched at Erbil airbase, but no casualties or damage were reported. The next day, on the morning of November 23, multiple one-way attack drones targeted troops at Ain al-Asad airbase and the Erbil airbase. That was the last reported attack in Iraq until Monday, when militants were preparing to launch a one-way attack drone. US forces responded and killed the five militants and destroyed the drone, according to CENTCOM.

Attacks had been paused during part of the temporary ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, which lasted from November 24 – December 1.

No attacks were recorded against US forces in Syria or Iraq from November 24 – November 28. There have been at least three recorded attacks since the end of the Gaza ceasefire.

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