U.S. Troops Killed, Wounded in Jordan Attack Blamed on Iranian Proxies

© OpenStreetMap contributors, The Washington Post
Location of the attack

A militant drone attack killed three U.S. service members and injured at least 34 in Jordan on Sunday, officials said, marking the first deadly military action against American troops since the war in Gaza triggered a steep rise in violence across the Middle East.

President Biden blamed the assault on groups supported by Iran, generating immediate questions about when, where and how forcefully the United States might respond.

Speaking during a visit to South Carolina, Biden referenced the loss of “three brave souls.”

“We had a tough day last night in the Middle East,” he said, before leading a moment of silence. “And we shall respond.”

As the tally of attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria has surged to more than 160 since October, the Pentagon has carried out retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxies there. But to the frustration of many in Washington, those actions, along with a parallel campaign of strikes on Iranian-linked rebels in Yemen, have failed to end the violence, and the president’s critics used the incident Sunday to ramp up their demands for more aggressive countermeasures.

The deadly attack targeted a facility known as Tower 22 in northeast Jordan, close to where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan converge.

A U.S. defense official said the one-way drone struck the base’s living quarters, causing injuries that ranged from cuts and bruises to brain trauma. About 350 troops are stationed at the base.

Jordan’s government condemned the attack and said Jordanian troops had suffered no casualties. Government spokesperson Muhannad Mubaideen said Jordan would “continue to counter terrorism and the smuggling of drugs and weapons across the Syrian border into Jordan, and will confront with firmness and determination anyone who attempts to attack the security of the Kingdom.”

It was not immediately clear where the attack was launched from, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the incident. Military commanders are working to determine that information and, crucially, why U.S. air defenses failed to intercept the drone.

Eight personnel required evacuation out of Jordan for “higher level care, but they are in stable condition,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement Sunday night. The identities of those slain were not disclosed, pending family notifications. Biden, in his statement, called them “patriots in the highest sense.”

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, described the incident as a “game changer” in the intensifying standoff between Tehran and Washington.

The attack’s lethal outcome “means that Biden’s response is going to have to be more significant than everything he’s done until now,” he said. “It forces Biden’s hand.”

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group for Iranian-linked militias including Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to a senior official with the organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with rules set by the group.

“If the U.S. keeps supporting Israel, there will be escalations,” the Islamic Resistance in Iraq official said. “All U.S. interests in the region are legitimate targets and we don’t care about U.S. threats to respond. … Martyrdom is our prize.”

Friction between the two countries has worsened in recent weeks, as U.S. forces have fought back against the rise in Iranian proxy attacks. On Jan. 4, the Biden administration launched a rare retaliatory strike on a base belonging to a militia in central Baghdad, killing the group’s commander. U.S. officials said at the time that it was hoped the strike would serve as a deterrent against further hostility toward U.S. troops. Instead, the attacks have grown more ambitious.

Retired Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East from 2019 to 2022, said the recent U.S. counterstrikes, which he described as “fairly circumscribed,” had not had the effect of deterring Iranian-backed groups.

“If the opponent is allowed to continue these attacks on such a scope and scale, eventually they’re going get lucky with something,” he said. “It’s just the calculus of the battlefield.”

Tower 22 is part of a constellation of bases that house some 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and another 900 in Syria. Those forces have been focused chiefly on preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State, the terrorist network that took over large swaths of both countries until a U.S.-led military campaign left the group decimated.

Tower 22 functions as a support site for another U.S. outpost across Jordan’s border in Syria that has taken on a different sort of mission. The isolated al-Tanf base, located along a key highway that connects Tehran to its ally, Damascus, has served as a platform for U.S. forces pushing back against Iran’s efforts to supply partners and proxies in Syria and beyond.

Sunday’s bloodshed also spotlights Jordan’s attempt to walk a tenuous line as many in the Arab world, outraged by Israel’s punishing assault on Gaza, have faulted the United States for its unconditional backing of the Jewish state despite the war’s enormous civilian toll. The kingdom views the United States as a valuable partner in counterterrorism but also is seeking to avoid the wrath of Iran and other regional neighbors.

McKenzie noted that the U.S. military had made significant improvements in its ability to disable or shoot down drones seeking to attack U.S. bases.

“But it’s still not perfect, and you’re not going to be able to attain perfection in these defensive efforts, which is why the tragedy today happened,” he said.

Iran hawks in Congress amplified their criticism of Biden and his management of the Gaza-related violence in the wake of the new bloodshed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) implored the administration to impose “serious crippling costs” on Iran and its proxies.

“The time to start taking this aggression seriously,” McConnell said, “was long before more brave Americans lost their lives.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the president’s strategy for deterring escalation had “failed miserably.” He called for striking “targets of significance inside Iran” – a prospect that many national security experts fear would draw the United States into a cataclysmic war.

“The only thing the Iranian regime understands is force,” Graham said. “Until they pay a price with their infrastructure and their personnel, the attacks on U.S. troops will continue.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A total of five U.S. troops have died since violence in the Middle East widened with Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Two Navy SEALs were lost in an accident earlier this month while on a mission to interdict Iranian weapons components bound for Yemen, where militants continue to target commercial and military vessels off the Arabian Peninsula.

As the SEALs attempted to board a boat suspected of carrying illicit arms, one of them slipped and fell from a ladder and the other jumped into the strong waves to help, officials have said. They were declared dead days later following an expansive search mission.

Even as the Biden administration confronts spiraling violence against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, it faces mounting questions about its plan for containing attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, whose campaign targeting ships off the Arabian Peninsula poses a major threat to international commerce.