Pentagon hints at stronger response against Iranian proxies

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at a Pentagon press briefing at the Pentagon, Feb 1, 2024. [AP Photo]

U.S forces are preparing to hit Iran-backed proxies across the Middle East with increased intensity in response to a drone attack on a base in Jordan that killed three U.S. soldiers and injured more than 40 others.

U.S Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking to reporters for the first time since he was hospitalized January 1 for complications from prostate cancer surgery, called the attack against sleeping quarters at Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan "egregious," adding such actions will not be tolerated.

"It's time to take away even more capability than we've taken in the past," Austin said Thursday, when asked why the United States has waited to respond more strongly to the more than 165 attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East dating to mid-October of last year.

The U.S. defense secretary also seemed to dismiss a statement issued by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, that it was suspending military operations against the U.S.

"We always listen to what people are saying, but we watch what they do," he said. "Actions are everything."

Austin also suggested that following the deadly attack in Jordan, such gestures are too little, too late.

"We look to hold the people that are responsible for this accountable," he said. "And we also look to make sure that we continue to take away capability from them as we go forward."

Like his counterparts at the White House and the State Department, Austin said the U.S. is moving forward with a "multi-tiered response" likely to include multiple military strikes.

CBS News reported Thursday that U.S. President Joe Biden has approved plans for several days of strikes on targets that include "Iranian personnel and facilities" in both Iraq and Syria.

With the exception of a strike on January 4 in Baghdad that killed the leader of the Iran-backed Harakat-al-Nujaba militia, previous U.S. responses have focused on hitting sites and storage facilities instead of militia personnel.

Some critics, though, have raised concerns that Washington's willingness to talk about a military response has given the Iran-backed militias, many of which have launched attacks on U.S. forces under the banner of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, time to prepare.

But Austin said he was not concerned with reports that some of the militias have been evacuating bases and training facilities.

"In terms of telegraphing about strikes and whether or not people leave or what is left, I won't speculate," the defense secretary said.

"They have a lot of capability. I have a lot more," he said. "We're going to do what's necessary to protect our troops and our interests."

The defense chief also acknowledged there has been no end to attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen despite several warnings and a series strikes on Houthi facilities and missile launch locations.

"The Houthis continue to do some things that are very irresponsible and illegal," he told reporters. "So, our goal is to make sure that we continue to take away capability from the Houthis to do what they've been doing.

"We would call upon Iran to quit or to cease supplying the Houthis with these advanced conventional weapons that they've used to attack ships," he said, calling it an issue of international concern.

The Houthis have launched nearly 40 attacks on international shipping since mid-November, including a flurry of attacks and attempted attacks on Thursday.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, said it started with the shootdown of a drone in the early morning hours, Yemen time, over the Gulf of Aden.

Several hours later, U.S. forces in the Red Sea destroyed a Houthi naval drone packed with explosives that was headed for international shipping lanes.

“It presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and the U.S. Navy ships in the region,” U.S. Central Command, also known as CENTCOM, said in a statement.

A couple of hours after the naval drone was eliminated, CENTCOM said the Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles in the general direction of the M/V Koi, a Bermuda-owned cargo ship.

A CENTCOM statement said the missiles missed the ship and splashed into the water.

In January, the U.S. designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.