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After U.S. strikes, White House urges Iraq to stop militia threats

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The White House on Sunday urged Iraq’s government to act more quickly against Iran-backed militias operating in the country, after senior officials in Baghdad raised an outcry over a wave of airstrikes that the United States launched in retaliation for the deaths of three U.S. soldiers.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that the Iraqi government must “move with more alacrity” to end threats from militia groups that have attacked U.S. military positions. The groups, organized under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, have launched at least 165 attacks against U.S. forces since October.

“Three Americans were killed, three troops; three families now are grieving,” Kirby said, speaking on “Fox News Sunday.” “The president’s not going to sit back and idly just take that. We’re going to respond.”

Kirby said that President Biden had approved smaller strikes in response to earlier attacks on U.S. positions and that he wasn’t going to let the deaths of the three soldiers go unanswered. The soldiers — Staff Sgt. William Rivers, 46; Sgt. Breonna Moffett, 23; and Sgt. Kennedy Sanders, 24 — were killed Jan. 28 when a one-way attack drone crashed into sleeping quarters at a small outpost in northeastern Jordan that is close to the borders of Syria and Iraq.

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The strikes on Friday night hit about 85 targets across Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon said, prompting the Iraqi government to summon a senior U.S. diplomat, David Pecker, and issue an official note of protest. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said that civilians were killed in the strikes and that Iraq does not want to be an arena “for settling scores between rival countries.”

The comments underscored the difficult balancing act Washington and Baghdad are trying to maintain as the militias, which are armed and trained by Iran, pressure the United States to leave Iraq.

The Pentagon has about 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq at the invitation of the government in Baghdad to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. About 900 more U.S. troops are in Syria with a similar mission.

The United States and Britain on Saturday also launched a new wave of attacks in Yemen, hitting roughly 35 targets connected with Houthi militants that seized control of much of the country in 2014. For months, Houthi fighters have attacked commercial vessels and U.S. warships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

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Like the militias in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis have linked their attacks with the war in Gaza and U.S. support for the Israeli government. They also receive weapons and training from Iran, U.S. officials have said.

There were signs over the weekend that the attacks would continue.

In Syria, two rockets were launched Saturday against a U.S. military outpost known as Mission Support Site Euphrates, said Maj. Pete Nguyen, a Pentagon spokesman. No one was injured.

In Yemen, Houthi officials said they will respond to the strikes launched against them on Saturday.

“The American-British aggression against Yemen will not go unanswered, and we will meet escalation with escalation,” Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political office, said in a social media post early Sunday. He added that the Houthis will not stop their attacks on shipping until Israel’s military operations in Gaza end.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that U.S. officials cannot rule out further attacks by the groups on U.S. forces.

“The central purpose of the strikes has been to take away capabilities from the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that are attacking our forces and from the Houthis that continue to threaten Red Sea shipping,” Sullivan said. “And we believe they had good effect in reducing, degrading the capabilities of the militias and of the Houthis. And, as necessary, we will continue to take action.”

Sullivan, in a separate interview on MSNBC’s “Inside with Jen Psaki,” said the United States also will watch for potential reactions from Iran in coming weeks. Biden, he said, is not looking to escalate the conflict.

“How Tehran chooses to proceed from here, obviously, will be up to them,” Sullivan said. “But we will watch that carefully, and we’re prepared to deal with whatever comes next.”

Republicans and some nonpartisan national security experts have criticized the Biden administration for its approach, saying Washington has not done enough to deter Iran’s role in the attacks.

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Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general who led U.S. military operations across the Middle East from 2019 to 2022, said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that the United States has “explicitly taken Iran itself off the list of potential targets in this campaign,” and that doing so gives Iran “aid and comfort.”

“I am not advocating for striking Iran,” McKenzie said. “I am advocating that they need to be in the space of possible targets … so that they’re held at risk.”

McKenzie said “there’s some truth” to Iran probably not directing the specific attacks against U.S. forces. A few years ago, he said, Iran gave blanket clearance for the militias to attack U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria, creating a structure where the militias do not need to go back to Tehran for approval.

As the Biden administration worked to contain the fallout, it dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East for his fifth trip in the region since October. Blinken will travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank, the State Department said Sunday.

Blinken has sought to prevent a wider expansion of the conflict. He is also working on longer-term postwar planning for Gaza, including an agreement among Arab states and Israel for a unified, Palestinian-led body that would govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Blinken will work to “establish a more integrated, peaceful region that includes lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

But significant gaps remain between Israeli and Arab leaders on Blinken’s road map, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state — something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will not allow.

Blinken will also seek to expand humanitarian access in Gaza as Palestinians face near-famine conditions, lacking food, medicine and water.

Jennifer Hassan in London, John Hudson in Washington and Kelly Kasulis Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.

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