Joe Biden blames Iran for deaths of US troops in drone strike

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Joe Biden has blamed Iran for the deaths of three US service personnel in a “significant escalation” of the conflict in the Middle East.

The US president said the drone attack, responsible for the first combat deaths of US troops in more than three years, was carried out by “radical Iran-backed militant groups” and vowed to retaliate.

A further 25 US service personnel were injured after a suicide drone – designed to fly to a target and then explode – detonated at a military base in northern Jordan, near the Syrian border, on Saturday night. The Iran-backed Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI) claimed credit for the attack.

In a statement on Monday, Iran’s mission to the United Nations said that Tehran was not involved in the attack that killed the US service members.

The mission said: “Iran had no connection and had nothing to do with the attack on the US base.”

It added: “There is a conflict between US forces and resistance groups in the region, which reciprocate retaliatory attacks.”

Mr Biden earlier vowed to respond to the attacks with military force, and Pentagon sources did not rule out retaliatory strikes against Iran, which would bring the US into direct conflict with the country’s military for the first time since Israel invaded Gaza.

Mr Biden said: “The three American service members we lost were patriots in the highest sense, and their ultimate sacrifice will never be forgotten by our nation.

“Together, we will keep the sacred obligation we bear to their families. We will strive to be worthy of their honour and valour.

“We will carry on their commitment to fight terrorism, and have no doubt – we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing.”

On Sunday night Lord Cameron, the UK’s foreign secretary, said: “We strongly condemn attacks by Iran-aligned militia groups against US forces.

“We continue to urge Iran to de-escalate in the region. Our thoughts are with those US personnel who have lost their lives and all those who have sustained injuries, as well as their families.”

The military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan that was targeted in the drone strike
The military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan that was targeted in the drone strike - Planet Labs PBC

A US official said the drone strike on Sunday was “the most deadly attack since Oct 17”, when attacks on US personnel in the region began, and “clearly an escalation of significance”, adding that the Pentagon had launched an immediate investigation into how US air defences did not repel the strike.

The attack is the latest in a series of escalations across the region, carried out by a variety of arms-length groups backed by Iran, which opposes US support for Israel in the Gaza war and US military presence in the Middle East.

On Sunday, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) said HMS Diamond, a Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer in the region, used its Sea Viper missile system to shoot down a drone attack by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. It is the third time the warship has responded to Houthi aggression.

The US and UK have conducted air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen, who have launched hundreds of drone and missile attacks on commercial and naval ships in the Red Sea.

US troops in the Middle East have been targeted more than 150 times by Iran-linked groups using drones packed with explosives since attacks began, 10 days after Hamas’s first assault on Israel.

The US has launched counter-strikes against the proxy groups in Iraq and Syria after the attacks wounded troops and killed a military contractor who suffered a “cardiac episode” while sheltering from a drone attack in western Iraq in October.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian armed forces, on Sunday ordered the evacuation of Iranian militias in the Al-Bukamal region of eastern Syria in anticipation of retaliatory air strikes by Washington.

The attack in Jordan is believed to be the first time US personnel have been killed in combat since 13 died in a suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport in August 2021.

Tower 22 is close to the US Al-Tanf military base in southeastern Syria
Tower 22 is close to the US Al-Tanf military base in southeastern Syria - AP/Lolita Baldor

The troops killed were not immediately identified by US Centcom, the US military command in the Middle East, to allow time for their families to be informed.

US congressmen have called on Mr Biden to take direct action against Iran.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, urged the administration to “hit Iran now, hard” adding: “The only thing the Iranian regime understands is force. Until they pay a price with their infrastructure and their personnel, the attacks on US troops will continue.”

Dan Sullivan, another senator, said the attack “shows the dangers of the Biden administration’s appeasement of Iran in the past three years” and called for “a clear, lethal and overwhelming response”.

Wesley Clark, a former US general and Nato commander, said: “The US should stop saying ‘we don’t want to escalate’. This invites them to attack us. Stop calling our strikes ‘retaliation’. This is reactive. Take out their capabilities and strike hard at the source: Iran.”

While the US insisted the drone attack occurred on Jordanian soil, the Jordanian government claimed the blast occurred over the Syrian border.

Tower 22, a small outpost in the north of Jordan, is close to the US Al-Tanf military base in southeastern Syria.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq said that it also hit the nearby US bases of Shadadi and Rukban in Syria.

The group is an umbrella organisation of pro-Iran militias that sprang up after Israel’s war on Gaza started in October. It is believed to have been created by Iran’s Quds Force as a united front against US troops in Iraq.

The group includes Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, one of the most powerful pro-Iran militias in Iraq, which is believed to be responsible for many of the recent attacks against US forces.

A senior official with the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhri, directly tied Sunday’s attack to Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

“The killing of three American soldiers is a message to the US administration that unless the killing of innocents in Gaza stops, it must confront the entire nation,” he told Reuters.

“The continued American-Zionist aggression on Gaza is capable of exploding the situation in the region.”

Typically around 3,000 US troops are based in Jordan, which is a base point for troops and special forces operating in Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said the UK was “undaunted” by the Houthi drone attack against the HMS Diamond, which is stationed in the Red Sea.

The warship, which is protecting merchant shipping in the region, has now been targeted three times by the terrorist group in recent months.

There were no injuries to the crew and the destroyer was undamaged after Saturday’s unsuccessful assault by the Iran-backed rebels.

Mr Shapps said the UK “will not hesitate” to respond. “We will not hesitate to take action if we need to defend ourselves and innocent merchant sailors.

“This was another direct attack on our Royal Navy and on the freedom of navigation that we hold dear as an island nation.”

Mr Shapps also dismissed criticism of the warship after it emerged that it is not equipped with missiles that can target Houthi land bases.

He added: “HMS Diamond’s value in the coalition operation to protect vessels in the Red Sea is unquestionable.

“She is crucial in the fight to protect innocent lives and keep maritime waters open.”

The MoD said that the HMS Diamond had shot down and destroyed the Yemeni group’s drone using its Sea Viper missile-defence system.

“Yesterday the crew of HMS Diamond had to once again shoot down a Houthi attack drone illegally targeting the ship,” the ministry said in a statement.

“These intolerable and illegal attacks are completely unacceptable and it is our duty to protect the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.”

Waves of drones and missiles

The assault was the third incident of its kind since mid-December with the vessel targeted before on Dec 16 and Jan 10.

The Iran-aligned Houthis have launched waves of drones and missiles at vessels since mid-November in response to Israel’s war in Gaza.

They have frequently targeted ships with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, endangering shipping on a key global trade route.

As tensions escalated, the Marlin Luanda, a British-linked oil tanker, was struck with an anti-ship missile fired by the rebel group on Friday.

By Saturday afternoon, an on-board blaze had been extinguished, with all of the ship’s crew declared safe after French, Indian and US vessels provided assistance.

Firefighting efforts aboard the Marlin Luanda after it was struck by a Houthi missile
Firefighting efforts aboard the Marlin Luanda after it was struck by a Houthi missile

The tanker sails under the flag of the Marshall Islands but is managed by Oceonix Services Ltd, a company registered in the UK.

The Houthis said they targeted the vessel in response to “American-British aggression against our country”.

US and British warplanes, ships and submarines have responded with dozens of retaliatory strikes on sites operated by the rebel group across Yemen.

However, a second series of joint UK and US air strikes, carried out at the start of the week, appeared to have done little to thwart the assaults.

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