The U.S. military began an initial round of airstrikes on Iranian-backed groups in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for an attack on a base in Jordan last weekend that killed three American troops.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said it began airstrikes around 4 p.m. ET in Iraq and Syria against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force “and affiliated militia groups.”
“U.S. military forces struck more than 85 targets, with numerous aircraft to include long-range bombers flown from the United States,” CENTCOM said in a statement. “The airstrikes employed more than 125 precision munitions.”
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said at roughly 5:30 p.m. ET that the first round of strikes had concluded but more were expected in the coming days as part of a tiered response.
Kirby said the strikes were intended to degrade capabilities and send a message to Iran and Iranian-backed groups to stop attacking Americans.
“We believe that these targets fell into exactly that criteria,” he said. “And the goal here is to get these attacks to stop. We’re not looking for a war with Iran.”
CENTCOM said it hit command and control operations, intelligence centers, rockets, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicle storages and munition supply chain facilities used by militia groups and the IRGC.
Along with the IRGC, the U.S. was expected to target the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of militias backed by Iran. The Islamic Resistance claimed responsibility for the Jordan attack, and the U.S. earlier this week attributed the attack to it.
Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the aircraft involved in the strike included B-1 bomber planes and hit seven different sites, four in Syria and three in Iraq, with a number of targets at each spot. Sims said the U.S. is confident the strikes damaged military capabilities.
“We hit exactly what we meant to hit,” Sims said. “We confidently struck targets that will impact their ability to conduct future strikes against Americans.”
U.S. officials said they informed the Iraqi government prior to carrying out the strikes but have not communicated with Iran since the deaths of the soldiers in Jordan.
President Biden released a statement after the strikes were announced Friday noting that he had attended the return of the three soldiers killed in Jordan earlier in the day at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“This afternoon, at my direction, U.S. military forces struck targets at facilities in Iraq and Syria that the IRGC and affiliated militia use to attack U.S. forces,” he said.
“Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing,” he added. “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.”
Iranian Telegram channels reported that the strikes targeted the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Iraqi militia groups that includes Iranian-backed militants that provide official security in Baghdad.
Iranian groups quickly condemned the U.S. for the attack.
“This new aggression reveals the lies of the American administration and its pursuit to intensify the war,” they said in a joint statement. “The United States continues its aggression and arrogance towards the peoples of our nation.”
Iranian media channels were also reporting the deaths of six people from the strikes so far, including three Iraqis. The claims could not be immediately verified.
Iran has yet to respond to the U.S. air strikes. But Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned in an address earlier Friday that Tehran would respond.
“We have often clarified that Iran will not initiate a war but will answer bullies firmly and authoritatively,” Raisi said, according to state-run news outlet Islamic Republic News Agency.
The U.S. strikes are part of an operation that several officials suggested would involve a tiered response.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that the strikes will “unfold at times and places of our choosing.”
“This is the start of our response,” Austin said in a statement. “We do not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else, but the president and I will not tolerate attacks on American forces. We will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our forces, and our interests.”
Biden faced immense pressure to retaliate after a suicide drone hit Tower 22, a U.S. base in Jordan, on Sunday, injuring 40 service members and killing three Army reservists.
Some Republicans called for Biden to strike back inside Iran for the deaths, but any move hitting Iranian soil would likely provoke an all-out war between Washington and Tehran, something the president has repeatedly said he does not want.
But hitting targets linked to the country’s militant wing, the IRGC — which is involved in training, supplying and assisting sponsored groups throughout the Middle East — could alone send a strong message to Tehran.
The strikes came days after the Jordan attack, giving Iranian groups time to flee and prepare defenses, but U.S. officials voiced confidence in hitting necessary targets. The U.S. expected casualties from the strikes but officials did not specifically say if they targeted any senior IRGC officers. A battle damage assessment was also not immediately available.
Besides the IRGC, the strikes targeted a broad range of Iranian-backed groups instead of just one, which officials said was the most effective way to respond after intelligence concluded the Islamic Resistance in Iraq was at large responsible for the Jordan attack.
Iran has vowed to respond decisively to any U.S. military action. But Iran has also grown concerned about a wider war, according to CNN.
The Iranian-backed groups claim they are fighting against U.S. forces in response to the Israeli war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.
They have launched more than 160 attacks on the U.S. in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since October, and the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have attacked commercial shipping and U.S. forces some 36 times since November.
The latest strikes in Iraq could further intensify ongoing discussions between Iraq and the U.S. over the future of the American military presence in the country.
The U.S. has some 2,500 troops there to train and assist Iraq in the fight against Islamic extremist group ISIS, but Iraqi officials have complained about their country being turned back into a warzone as the U.S. and Iranian groups clash.
Yahya Rasool, a spokesperson for Iraq’s commander-in-chief, said the U.S. hit the city of Al-Qaim and other border areas of Iraq, stressing the latest strikes “come at a time when Iraq is striving to ensure the stability of the region.”
“These strikes constitute a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government, posing a threat that will pull Iraq and the region to undesirable consequences, with severe implications for security and stability in Iraq and the region,” Rasool said in a statement.
Updated 6:37 p.m. ET