The US launched airstrikes against Iranian-linked forces in Iraq and Syria on Friday, after President Joe Biden promised retaliatory attacks for a drone strike that killed three American troops.
The US military’s Central Command said 85 targets at seven separate facilities were hit, including elements of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed militia in the region.
It has stoked fears of a potential escalation in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, with the Iraqi Government saying the attacks have put the “region on the brink of the abyss”.
A UK Government spokesperson later declined to comment on the attacks directly, but said Britain and the US remain “steadfast allies”.
Where did they hit?
The assault took place over a period of around 30 minutes from 4pm Eastern Time on Friday. Three of the sites struck were in Iraq and four were in Syria, according to Lt Gen Douglas Sims, director of operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The targets included command and control headquarters, intelligence centres, rockets and missiles, drone and ammunition storage sites and other facilities that were connected to the militias or the IRGC’s Quds Force, the Guard’s expeditionary unit.
It marks the first time the US has targeted the Quds Force directly in its escalating campaign in the region.
An Iraqi military spokesperson said US airstrikes were launched at Iraqi border areas, warning that the attacks could ignite instability in the region.
The strikes were organised solely by Washington and there was no British involvement, unlike the recent strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.
No 10 said the UK supports America’s “right to respond to attacks,” adding that Britain continues to condemn “Iran’s destabilising activity throughout the region”.
What has the US said?
President Biden issued a stern statement shortly after the attacks warning that the US will respond if it is provoked.
He insisted that “the United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. But let all those who might seek to do us harm know this: if you harm an American, we will respond.”
The US leader had promised retaliation for the deaths of three American army reservists in a drone strike in Jordan last week. Washington attributed last Sunday’s attack, which also injured 41 service members, to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.
Following the response on Friday, Lt Gen Sims said the US has so far “hit exactly what we meant to hit”.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby added that the targets “were carefully selected to avoid civilian casualties and based on clear, irrefutable evidence that they were connected to attacks on US personnel in the region”
However, the Iraqi Government said on Saturday that at least 16 people, including civilians, were killed in the attack and 25 others wounded.
Syrian state media also reported that there were casualties but did not give a number. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 18 militants were killed in the Syria strikes.
US officials signalled that the assault was likely the first in a phased response. It will heighten fears that Washington is being drawn closer into a widening regional conflict prompted by the Israel-Hamas war.
Although President Biden has said he is not seeking to get involved in a fresh conflict in the Middle East, he has made clear that the US will continue to respond if Iran and its proxies do not back down.
“We made these strikes tonight with an idea that there would likely be casualties associated with people inside those facilities,” he said on Friday.
Lloyd Austin, the US Defence Secretary, added: “This is the start of our response. The President has directed additional actions to hold the IRGC and affiliated militias accountable for their attacks on US and coalition forces. These will unfold at times and places of our choosing.”
Iraq has warned that the strikes could unleash “disastrous consequences” for the region and mark a “violation” of the Middle Eastern country’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Syria’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the US attacks have proved “once again that… its military forces threaten international peace and security and ignites conflict in the region”.
The EU’s foreign policy chief called on both sides to consider the wider ramifications of a potential escalation.
“Everybody should try to avoid that the situation becomes explosive,” Josep Borrell said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Saturday.