U.S. military strikes Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq after soldiers wounded in drone strike

The U.S. military launched airstrikes in Iraq against Hezbollah Brigades, an Iranian proxy, and allied militias after three U.S. soldiers were wounded, including one critically, when a drone struck a U.S. airbase in Erbil on Dec. 25. But the Biden administration continued to send mixed messages to the Iranian-backed militias and Iran itself, as it says it does not “seek to escalate conflict in the region.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described the strikes as “necessary and proportionate” and said it targeted “three facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah [Hezbollah Brigades] and affiliated groups in Iraq.”

“These U.S. airstrikes destroyed the targeted facilities and likely killed a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants,” according to a statement by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Following the strikes, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) announced the death of Dera Hassan, a fighter belonging to the organization.

Hezbollah Brigades is a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and is led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi. Hezbollah Brigades receives training, funds, weapons, intelligence and other key aid from Iran’s Qods Force. The terror group is responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. Hezbollah Brigades was founded by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, who was listed by the U.S. government as a specially designated global terrorist in July 2009 and was described as “an advisor to” former Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Muhandis, along with Qaiz Khazali, played a key role in the Shia militias’ formation and subsequent attacks on U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi forces. The U.S. killed Muhandis and Soleimani in an airstrike in Baghdad in 2020.

While the Pentagon has not disclosed the exact number of strikes the Iranian-backed militias have conducted against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, a Department of Defense official told FDD’s Long War Journal that the number is over 90 and “quickly approaching 100.” More than 50 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in the militia attacks. The U.S. has responded with only six counterstrikes, four in Iraq and two in Syria.

Austin continued to send muddled messages to Iran and its proxies. On one hand, Austin attempted to project strength, and indicated that the counterstrikes could prevent future attacks. The airstrikes that hit Hezbollah Brigades and its allies were “intended to disrupt and degrade capabilities of the Iran-aligned militia groups directly responsible,” Austin said.

On the other hand, Austin signaled reluctance to conduct further strikes against the militias, and there is no indication that the real driver of the conflict, Iran, will be forced to pay a price.

“While we do not seek to escalate conflict in the region, we are committed and fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities,” Austin said.

In an effort to force the U.S. to abandon the Middle East and support Hamas in its war against Israel, Iran is leveraging its network of militias, referred to as the Axis of Resistance, and is ratcheting up pressure on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as against international shipping in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. In addition to the attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, an Iraqi militia recently targeted the city of Eilat, Israel. However, that drone was shot down by Jordanian air defenses.

Meanwhile, the Houthis – another Iranian-backed militia – continue to disrupt maritime traffic passing through the Red Sea. Today, the USS Laboon, a U.S. Navy destroyer, and F/A-18 fighters USS Eisenhower “shot down twelve one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles, and two land attack cruise missiles in the Southern Red Sea that were fired by the Houthis.” On Dec. 23, USS Laboon shot down four Houthi drones “that were inbound” as it was patrolling the Red Sea while Houthi drones targeted two oil tankers. One of the ships was struck. The Houthis have launched at least 15 attacks against commercial vessels since Oct. 17, according to CENTCOM. In the Indian Ocean, an Iranian drone struck a Japanese-owned chemical tanker. The U.S. and international community have yet to respond with force to Houthi and Iranian attacks on commercial vessels or even their own warships.

The U.S. has formed an international coalition, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, to deal with the Houthi threat. However, it has gotten off to a rocky start, with France refusing to abide by U.S. leadership, and Spain denying Austin’s claims that it joined the coalition. Australia, a close U.S. ally, refused to send ships to support the mission. The cracks in Operation Prosperity Guardian and the weak messaging by the U.S. on militia attacks in Iraq and Syria likely will only embolden Iran and its Axis of Resistance.

Joe Truzman is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal focused primarily on Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah. Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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