The US has ordered a series of reprisal strikes to be launched over more than one day against an Iranian-backed militia, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has said.
Austin said all drones in the region attacking the US were of Iranian origin. The retaliatory strikes are expected to hit militia in Syria and possibly Iraq, though Austin did not specify the timing or precise location.
“We will have a multi-tier response and we have the ability to respond a number of times depending on the situation,” he said at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. “We look to hold the people responsible for this accountable and we also seek to take away capability as we go forward.”
Austin insisted that a lot of thought in Washington had gone into ensuring that the US response did not trigger a major escalation.
“There are ways to manage this so it doesn’t spiral out of control, and that’s been our focus throughout,” the defence secretary said.
Three US soldiers were killed and more than 30 injured by a drone strike on a relatively small US base on the border between Jordan, Iraq and Syria on Sunday. They were the first US military deaths by hostile fire since the Israel-Hamas war began on 7 October.
Iran has repeatedly warned the US not to launch any strike on Iranian territory, saying if the US escalates in this way its response will be swift and dramatic.
Austin stressed the US was not at war with Iran and Washington did not know if Tehran was aware of the specific drone strikes on Sunday mounted by what he described as the axis of resistance.
He said in a sense “it did not matter since we do know that Iran sponsors these groups and funds these groups, and in some cases trains these groups”.
Austin said that without Iranian facilitation, these attacks could not be mounted. He sidestepped claims that US delays in responding meant senior Iranian military advisers had left Syria for Iran where they were less likely to face a US attack.
Asked about the announcement by the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah that it was suspending its attacks on US bases inside Iraq, he said: “We always listen to what people are saying, and we also watch what they do. Actions are everything so we will see what they do.”
The Emirati-based newspaper, the National, reported on Thursday that a senior Iranian commander had travelled to Baghdad and met Tehran-backed militants to urge an immediate de-escalation.
Austin acknowledged that there had been 160 strikes on US bases in Syria and Iraq since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.
He described most of them as ineffective, adding that the US was able to defend itself. “When we conduct a strike we are going to take away capability. This particular attack [on Sunday] was egregious and on the sleeping areas of our base.”
He said: “We will respond at a time and place of our choosing. Iranian proxy groups have been attacking our troops before 7 October.”
He said there was no set formula in meeting the US’s competing objectives of holding the right people accountable, doing everything to protect its troops and avoiding escalation.
The Biden administration is under competing pressures in the wake of the fatal attack on a US base, as the presidential re-election campaign begins in earnest. Republicans are accusing Biden of weakness and of leaving American troops as sitting ducks in the region.
The White House believes it has to elevate its response so as to deter further attacks but to stop short of triggering a major escalation. The president’s priority in the wake of the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war has been to limit the spread of the conflict, and at all cost avert a direct US-Iranian conflict.
US officials believe that if they can broker a ceasefire in Gaza, it will ease the pressure on US forces in the Red Sea and across the region. Qatar claimed on Thursday night that Hamas had given an “initial positive confirmation” of a deal involving a truce and a hostage release.
In his remarks on Thursday, Austin justified the US and UK joint strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, saying Houthis continued to do things that were very irresponsible and illegal.
“We are going to be serious about freedom of navigation or not. There are others in the world watching us to see how serious we are and we are serious.
“It is costing countries and companies a significant amount of money,” he added, calling on Iran to cease supplying Houthis with advanced weapons to attack commercial shipping.
No evidence existed as yet that China was putting pressure on Iran in turn to direct the Houthis to stop the attacks and end arms supplies, he said.