Iran-backed armed groups have targeted US troops in Iraq hours after Tehran vowed revenge and blamed Israel for a deadly attack on a building housing its elite forces in the Syrian capital Damascus, driving fears of wide regional conflict.
The attack caused one Iraqi and possible American casualties, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Saturday, and came hours after Tehran vowed to take revenge against Israel for its strike targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Syria.
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“Multiple ballistic missiles and rockets were launched by Iranian-backed militants in western Iraq targeting al-Assad Airbase,” CENTCOM said on X.
Most of the projectiles were intercepted by the base’s air defence systems, but “others impacted on the base”, the statement said.
Iranian-backed Militants Attack Al-Assad Airbase, Iraq
At approximately 6:30 p.m. (Baghdad time) time Jan. 20, multiple ballistic missiles and rockets were launched by Iranian-backed militants in Western Iraq targeting al-Assad Airbase. Most of the missiles were intercepted by… pic.twitter.com/rYaNrRdRtu
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) January 20, 2024
Attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria have increased since the October 7 Israeli military offensive, which has been militarily backed by Washington. Since launching its offensive on the Gaza Strip, Israel has expanded its attacks targeting Iran-linked armed groups in Syria and Lebanon.
Yemen’s Houthis, who form part of Tehran-backed groups known as the “axis of resistance”, have launched attacks towards Israel and targeted Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza disrupting one of the busiest maritime routes. Houthis demand Israel end its war on Gaza and allow humanitarian aid into the besieged territory in desperate need of food, medicines and other essential items.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has warned of the dangers of escalation in Israel’s war on Gaza.
“If Israel continues to ramp up its attacks on other fronts and if it drags the West in, we’ll be looking at a very, very serious escalation of the conflict,” he told Al Jazeera.
Missiles elsewhere risk wider war
The stepped-up Israeli and US attacks targeting Iran-linked groups have the potential to trigger a regional conflict, pitting Iran and its allies against Israel and the US.
An Israeli drone strike in south Lebanon reportedly killed a member of Hezbollah, who was travelling in a car, according to two security sources. Another unidentified person travelling in the same car was also killed.
Meanwhile, the US said it had targeted a missile that the Houthis were aiming into the Red Sea. The US military has in the last week launched a number of strikes at the Houthis.
According to Hassan Ahmadian, a professor at the University of Tehran, Israel is widening the conflict due to its inability to achieve its military goals in Gaza.
“Israelis have upped the ante of what they were doing beforehand,” Ahmadian told Al Jazeera, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been vocal about calls for an escalation.
Israel is also ramping up its attacks to stave off attacks by Iran and allies in the region, however many of these groups are part of the “axis of resistance” and are doing so in their own national interests, he said.
Israeli strike targets Iran in Syria
On Saturday, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said his country would retaliate against the attack in Damascus which killed five members of the IRGC. Tehran blamed Israel for the latest attack targeting its forces in Syria – a close ally of Iran.
“The Islamic Republic will not leave the Zionist regime’s crimes unanswered,” Raisi said, according to state broadcaster IRIB.
There was no comment from Israel, but it has killed IRGC members in several similar strikes since October 7.
They were targeted in a building in Damascus which was flattened by “precision-targeted Israeli missiles”, according to a security source close to Syria’s government.
Portraits of the IRGC members on Iranian state media referred to three of them with an honorific used for generals, suggesting they were senior commanders, while the two others were a major and someone holding a lower rank.
An unspecified number of Syrian troops were also killed.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on the X: “The activities of Iran’s military advisers in the fight against terrorism and securing the region will continue with full strength.”
Iran and its military allies in Syria have entrenched themselves in several parts of the country.
In December, an Israeli air strike killed two IRGC members, and another on December 25 killed a senior adviser to the IRGC.