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Attacks Are On The Rise Between U.S. Troops And Iranian-Backed Militias


Early Monday, the U.S. launched limited airstrikes against three militia posts along the Syria-Iraq border. Those came after occasional drone and rocket attacks on U.S. troops. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from Beirut to explain what's going on. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: What more do we know about the targets of these U.S. strikes?

SHERLOCK: Well, we know the U.S. hit three locations - two places in Syria and one in Iraq. They said they targeted weapons stores and buildings that had been used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The U.S. accuses them of attacking its bases in Iraq. Those groups say the strikes killed four of their members. This is the second time the Biden administration has attacked them like this. In February, the U.S. struck one of these militias' bases in Syria. And, you know, that was after a rocket attack in Iraq that killed a civilian contractor and wounded an American service member.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction to these U.S. strikes?

SHERLOCK: So these militias that operate in Iraq with the support of Iran said that they will, quote, "make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge after the airstrikes." The popular mobilization units - that's an umbrella of these mostly Shia factions in Iraq - claim that the U.S. got the targets wrong. They said that the men that were killed in the U.S. airstrikes were on official duty to secure Iraq's borders and that they had nothing to do with attacks on American troops in Iraq, as the U.S. military claims.

But, you know, it's worth explaining here that this umbrella of militias has brought - was brought into the Iraqi government to fight ISIS a few years ago. But some of these groups have a lot of Iranian backing. And the U.S. says that Iran uses them to keep U.S. troops under threat.

So Iran has also commented on the U.S. strikes, accusing the U.S. of, quote, "disrupting the security of the region." But, you know, Rachel, perhaps the most interesting thing here is that the Iraqi government has made a rare condemnation of their U.S. ally. The Iraqi military says that the strikes are a blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty. This is because Iraq fears getting dragged into a conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

MARTIN: How is the Biden administration framing all this?

SHERLOCK: So yesterday, the White House press secretary reiterated the message that the strikes were designed as a sort of warning. The U.S. is casting these as defensive strikes that come in response to an increase in drone attacks and harassment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. And the backdrop to all of this is that there are talks ongoing to try to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Both Biden and Iran seem to want to keep those on track. So, you know, this might motivate both sides to try to avoid a kind of violent spiral.

MARTIN: A violent spiral both sides want to avoid, but there was another incident yesterday, wasn't there?

SHERLOCK: Yes, there was. So the U.S. military says that its troops in eastern Syria came under rocket attacks. But they say that there are no injuries, and they're still assessing the damage. And whilst these were rockets, the thing that particularly concerns the U.S. at the moment are attacks from drones. These things are easy to manufacture, but they can be deadly. They fly so low that they can be hard to detect and destroy. And Iranian-backed militias have used these drones that are laden with bombs in recent months. The U.S. says Iraqi bases where they have foreign troops have been attacked up to five times since April. So so far, no one has been killed by these attacks. But they're definitely proving a cause for concern.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting on all this from Beirut. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.