WASHINGTON — The Pentagon confirmed on Thursday that the Navy destroyer USS Carney shot down three land-attack cruise missiles and several drones fired by the Iran-backed Houthi militant group in Yemen. There were no casualties to US forces or to any civilians, the Pentagon said.

The missiles “were launched from Yemen heading north along the Red Sea, potentially towards targets in Israel,” Pentagon press secretary Pat Ryder told reporters.

The shoot-down marks the first major US military response to what appeared to be a coordinated escalation by suspected Iran-backed militias as Washington seeks to contain the fallout from Israel’s war in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia also shot down one of the drones launched by the Houthis, Israeli media reported.

“This action was a demonstration of the integrated air and missile defense architecture that we have built in the Middle East,” Ryder said.

Elsewhere in the region, US bases in Iraq and Syria were targeted in at least three separate drone attacks starting Tuesday, leading to the death of a civilian contractor working for the US military at al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province.

The contractor, whose identity and nationality the Pentagon has not confirmed, died of a “cardiac episode” after early-warning sirens caused personnel at the base to seek shelter, Ryder said Thursday.

Pentagon officials did not say what groups may have been behind the attacks, but did not rule out potential US retaliation.

“We’re going to do everything necessary to ensure that we’re protecting our forces,” Ryder told reporters on Thursday. “And if and when we choose to respond, we will do so at a time that we’re choosing.” 

Al-Asad air base was previously targeted by two kamikaze-style drones on Tuesday morning. Ground-based US air defenses shot down one of the drones and damaged the other, leading to “minor injuries” among personnel at the base, including symptoms potentially indicative of concussive brain injuries, Al-Monitor reported yesterday. 

It remained unclear how many coalition personnel were affected. US troops also shot down a drone near the Bashir airbase in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Ryder said.

Early on Wednesday, US troops at the Al-Tanf garrison in Syria’s remote southern desert were also targeted by two incoming drones. “US and coalition forces engaged one drone, destroying it, while the other drone impacted the base resulting in minor injuries,” Ryder told reporters.

Coalition personnel suffered from headaches in aftermath of the drone attacks on Al-Asad air base and Al-Tanf, Al-Monitor previously reported. It remained unclear where the drone attacks were launched from.

The new spate of attacks suggests Iran-backed militias in the region are seeking to target US personnel in retaliation for Washington’s support for Israel, despite the Pentagon’s efforts to deter wider regional escalation. 

Iraq’s Sabereen news, aligned with factions backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), suggested the “Islamic Resistance of Iraq” — an umbrella term for Iran-backed militias — was behind the drone attack, as well as an alleged rocket attack targeting al-Asad air base, which remains unconfirmed by the Pentagon.

Iran-backed militias across the region have openly threatened to target American forces in retaliation for Washington’s support for Israel amid its war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi warned earlier this month that his side would target American forces with drones and “other military options” if the US gets involved in Israel’s war in Gaza.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Washington of governing Israel’s campaign in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Ryder sought to downplay potential linkages between this week’s attacks and Israel’s bombardment in Gaza, while acknowledging tensions across the region over the war.

“Right now, this conflict is contained between Israel and Hamas,” he told reporters. “We’re going to do everything we can to ensure deterrence in the region so that this does not become a broader regional conflict.”

“We’re going to continue to assess attribution on these [attacks],” Ryder responded later during the briefing to a question posed by Al-Monitor. “We’re also not going to overreact,” he added.

The US has dispatched its largest aircraft carrier strike group, the USS Ford, to the eastern Mediterranean, with a second carrier strike group on the way in a bid to contain the fallout.

The Pentagon has also sent additional F-15s, F-16s and A-10s and redirected the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Bataan Amphibious Readiness Group to the region to respond if needed.

In addition to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, Iran’s IRGC has funded and trained a host of militias in Syria and Iraq, arming them with precision-guided munitions and raising fears of a potential multi-front confrontation against Israel.

US forces across the region have been on heightened alert since Israel began bombing targets in Gaza in response to a massive terrorist attack that left some 1,400 people dead across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

President Joe Biden has thrown full support behind Israel while his administration seeks to buy time ahead of an anticipated ground invasion of Gaza. Administration officials are reportedly concerned that Israel does not have a realistic plan for governing the Palestinian enclave once it deposes Hamas.

Pentagon officials are also increasingly worried that an IDF ground incursion could scuttle Washington’s efforts to convince additional Arab countries like Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel in order to build a defensive regional bulwark against Iran. 

Biden on Wednesday cast doubt on recent news reports suggesting the US military would get directly involved if Hezbollah were to unleash its massive arsenal of projectiles against Israel.

“Not true,” Biden said of reports from Israel that Washington had offered such assurances.

Source : Al Monitor

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