U.S. troops killed, wounded in Jordan attack blamed on Iranian proxies

Three U.S. troops were killed and at least 34 injured in a militant drone attack Sunday in Jordan, officials said, marking the first deadly military action against American service members since the war in Gaza triggered a steep rise in violence throughout the Middle East.

President Biden blamed the attack on groups supported by Iran, and the incident raised immediate questions about when, where and how forcefully, the Pentagon might respond. In a statement, he said the United States will “hold those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing.”

As the number of attacks on deployed American personnel has surged to more than 160, the Pentagon has carried out selective retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But to the frustration of many in Washington, those actions have failed to deter those perpetrating the violence, and the president’s critics seized on the development to intensify their demands for more aggressive countermeasures.

The latest attack targeted a facility known as Tower 22, in northeast Jordan along the country’s shared borders with Syria and Iraq. The one-way drone struck the base’s living quarters, a defense official said, causing injuries that ranged cuts and bruises to brain trauma.

It was not immediately clear from which country the attack was launched, said the official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the incident. Military commanders are working to determine that information and why air defenses failed to intercept the drone.

Some of the wounded personnel required medical evacuation, said the official. The names of those slain were not disclosed, pending family notifications. Biden, in his statement, called them “patriots in the highest sense.”

Sunday’s bloodshed spotlighted Jordan’s attempt to walk a tenuous line as many in the Arab world, outraged by Israel’s punishing assault on Gaza, have criticized the United States for backing the Jewish state despite the war’s enormous civilian toll. The kingdom has quietly partnered with the United States on counterterrorism while looking to avoid the wrath of Iran and other regional neighbors, and on Sunday Jordanian officials claimed that the attack targeted another U.S. base on the Syrian side of the border.

The U.S. troops at Tower 22 are on an advise-and-assist mission, the defense official said.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Kataib Hezbollah, Nujaba and other Iran-backed militants, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to a senior official with the group who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity in line with rules set by the group.

“As we said before, if the U.S. keeps supporting Israel, there will escalations. All the U.S. interests in the region are legitimate targets and we don’t care about U.S. threats to respond, we know the direction we are taking and martyrdom is our prize,” the Islamic Resistance in Iraq official said.

The group is a front for Iran-backed militias there. Its forces began targeting U.S. interests in 2018, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.

Iran hawks in Congress leveraged the deadly attack to amplify their criticism of Biden and his administration’s management of the spillover violence that has put much of the Middle East on edge.

In a statement, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the president’s strategy for deterring escalation had “failed miserably.” He called on the administration to retaliate by striking “targets of significance inside Iran” — a prospect that many national security experts fear would draw the United States into a cataclysmic war.

“The only thing the Iranian regime understands is force,” Graham said. “Until they pay a price with their infrastructure and their personnel, the attacks on U.S. troops will continue.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Jan. 4, the Biden administration launched a rare retaliatory strike on a base belonging to the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia in central Baghdad. Officials said at the time that it was hoped the strike would serve as a deterrent against further attacks on American troops. Instead, the attacks on U.S. personnel have grown more ambitious.

A total of five U.S. troops have died since violence in the Middle East widened with Israel’s invasion of Gaza in October. Two Navy SEALs were died in an accident earlier this month while on a mission to interdict Iranian weapons components bound for Yemen. As they attempted to board a boat suspected of carrying Iranian-made arms, one of them slipped and fell from a ladder and the other jumped into the strong waves to help, officials have said. They were declared dead days later following an expansive search mission.

Missy Ryan, Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Louisa Loveluck in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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