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Four Iran-backed fighters killed in US strikes in Syria, Pentagon says

Washington hoping Iran will back off after Wednesday exchange of fire, including bombings to destroy rocket launchers used to target American troops in Deir Ezzour

A Blackhawk helicopter lands next to an Apache attack helicopter at a US military base at undisclosed location in Eastern Syria, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. (AP/Darko Bandic)
A Blackhawk helicopter lands next to an Apache attack helicopter at a US military base at undisclosed location in Eastern Syria, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. (AP/Darko Bandic)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Four Iranian-backed militia members were killed in US strikes in Syria on Wednesday in response to attacks by the group in recent weeks, the US military said Thursday.

In a statement, US Central Command said US forces also destroyed seven enemy rocket launchers on Wednesday, hours after militia fighters fired rockets at two US military installations in northeast Syria. Central Command provided additional details about the strikes on Thursday, saying they were done with Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships and M777 Howitzers.

The latest spike in attacks came after militias backed by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard targeted US troops on August 15 at the al-Tanf Garrison in the south. There were no casualties or damage in that attack. But, in response, the US struck bunkers and facilities used by the militias.

At the Pentagon on Thursday, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said it would be premature to say if these strikes represent a broader escalation of violence in Syria.

“Certainly time will tell,” said Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary. “Based on the strikes that we have taken, we’ve sent a very loud and clear message, and a proportional message, that any threat against our forces who are operating in Syria or anywhere will not be tolerated. My hope would be that these groups would have received the message loud and clear and that we will not see similar behavior in future.”

President Joe Biden informed Congress of his decision to approve the initial US strikes on the bunker facility, saying the goal was to disrupt the ongoing series of attacks and “to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iran-backed militia groups from conducting or supporting further attacks on United States personnel and facilities.”

A US Marine fires a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile during a live fire demonstration near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, September 7, 2018. (Cpl. Carlos Lopez/US Marine Corps)

The opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the US airstrikes on the bunkers targeted the Ayash Camp run by the Fatimiyoun group made up of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan and that at least six Syrian and foreign militants were killed.

Within hours after the US strikes, militia rocket attacks hit Green Village and the Conoco gas field in Deir Ezzour, where US troops are stationed. According to US Central Command, at least three servicemembers were treated or evaluated for minor injuries. US forces retaliated by targeting the rocket launchers.

“We will respond appropriately and proportionally to attacks on our servicemembers,” said US Central Command head Gen. Erik Kurilla. “No group will strike at our troops with impunity.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, meets with US CENTCOM commander Gen. Erik Kurilla at the US Central Command Headquarters on August 25, 2022. (Courtesy CENTCOM)

Kurilla met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Washington Thursday for talks expected to focus on Iran.

While Syria has not commented on the exchange between US troops and Iran-backed fighters, it accused Israel Thursday of wounding two civilians in strikes near Hama and Tartus, in west-central Syria.

Deir Ezzour is a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oil fields. Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area and had often been the target of Israeli war planes in previous strikes.

Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani has denied that Iran had any link to those targeted. Iran routinely denies arming militia groups that target US forces in the region, despite weaponry linking back to them.

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