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US Strike in Syria Kills One           02/26 06:22

   A U.S. airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to a powerful 
Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group, killing one of their militiamen and wounding 
a number of others, an Iraqi militia official said Friday.

   BAGHDAD (AP) -- A U.S. airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to a 
powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group, killing one of their militiamen and 
wounding a number of others, an Iraqi militia official said Friday.

   The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq 
earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. 
service member and other coalition troops.

   The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that the strikes 
against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the 
border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. He 
spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak of the 
attack. Syria war monitoring groups said the strikes hit trucks moving weapons 
to a base for Iranian-backed militias in Boukamal.

   "I'm confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit," 
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California 
to Washington, shortly after the airstrikes which were carried out Thursday 
evening Eastern Standard Time.

   The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden 
administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more 
focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. 
Biden's decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to 
widen U.S. military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will 
to defend U.S. troops in Iraq.

   The U.S. has in the past targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb 
Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting U.S. personnel 
and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah 

   The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors 
the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were 
being taken by trucks entering Syrian territories from Iraq. The group said 22 
fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of 
mostly Shiite paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The 
report could not be independently verified.

   Defense Secretary Austin said he was "confident" the U.S. had hit back at 
the "the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes," referring to a Feb. 
15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and 
wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition personnel.

   Austin said he had recommended the action to President Joe Biden.

   "We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline," Austin 
said. "We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that 
we had the right targets."

   Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. action was a 
"proportionate military response" taken together with diplomatic measures, 
including consultation with coalition partners.

   "The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to 
protect American and coalition personnel," Kirby said.

   Kirby said the U.S. airstrikes "destroyed multiple facilities at a border 
control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups," including 
Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada.

   Further details were not immediately available.

   Mary Ellen O'Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the 
U.S. attack as a violation of international law.

   "The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military 
force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response 
to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is 
responsible," she said. "None of those elements is met in the Syria strike."

   Biden administration officials condemned the Feb. 15 rocket attack near the 
city of Irbil in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as 
this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried 
it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia 
groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted U.S. 
personnel or facilities in Iraq.

   Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the Feb. 15 
attack. He added that U.S. officials were not then able to give a "certain 
attribution as to who was behind these attacks."

   A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Alwiya al-Dam, 
Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the Feb. 15 
attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad's Green Zone appeared to 
target the U.S. Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

   Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade. 
Iran-backed groups have splintered significantly since the U.S.-directed strike 
that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi 
al-Muhandis in Baghdad more than a year ago. Both were key in commanding and 
controlling a wide array of Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq.

   Since their deaths, the militias have become increasingly unruly. Some 
analysts argue the armed groups have splintered as a tactic to claim attacks 
under different names to mask their involvement.

   The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against U.S. targets in 
Iraq diminished late last year ahead of Biden's inauguration.

   The U.S. under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups 
for carrying out multiple attacks in Iraq.

   Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and 
provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian 
contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi 
soil that culminated in the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Soleimani and 
brought Iraq to the brink of a proxy war.

   U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and 
no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations 
against the Islamic State group.

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