United States forces are facing increased threats, raising concerns that the Israel-Hamas war may spill over across the region.
Drones and missiles were launched at bases hosting US troops in Iraq on Thursday. The attacks helped put Washington on heightened alert for activity by Iran-backed armed groups following similar incidents in Iraq and Syria on Wednesday, while a US warship intercepted missiles potentially heading towards Israel.
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President Joe Biden has sent naval power to the Middle East in the past two weeks, including two aircraft carriers, other warships and about 2,000 marines.
There has been an uptick in attacks on US forces since the conflict in Israel broke out on October 7 when Palestinian fighters from Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, attacked southern Israel.
Earlier this week, US forces thwarted multiple drones targeting troops.
On Wednesday, a drone hit US forces in Syria resulting in minor injuries, while another was brought down.
During a false alarm at Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq, a civilian contractor died from cardiac arrest.
However, on Thursday, drones and rockets targeted the base, which hosts US and other international forces in western Iraq. Multiple blasts were heard inside the base.
Rockets also hit a military base hosting US forces near Baghdad’s international airport, Iraqi police said, without providing further details.
“While I’m not going to forecast any potential responses to these attacks, I will say that we will take all necessary actions to defend US and coalition forces against any threat,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
“Any response, should one occur, will come at a time in a manner of our choosing,” Ryder said.
A US Navy warship travelling near Yemen intercepted three missiles above the northern Red Sea and several drones that were launched by what Ryder said was the Iran-aligned Houthi movement. The official said it appeared that the projectiles were potentially heading in the direction of Israel.
“We cannot say for certain what these missiles and drones were targeting, but they were launched from Yemen, heading north along the Red Sea, potentially towards targets in Israel,” the Pentagon spokesperson told reporters in a press briefing.
Ryder claimed he did not see a link between the rise in attacks and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“At this point, again, the information that we have does not show a direct connection to the Hamas attacks on October 7,” he said.
On Wednesday, Iran-allied groups in Iraq announced that they had formed a “joint operations room” to help Hamas in its war effort.
Two officials with Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq, who spoke to the AP news agency on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the issue, confirmed the attacks on the two US bases on Wednesday.
They said the groups were on alert and prepared to join the wider battle against Israel, but that Iran had not yet given approval for them to open a new front.
Leaders from some of the factions are now in Lebanon and Syria in case they get orders to proceed, one of the officials told AP.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iranian-backed fighters, has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the two drone attacks in Iraq and saying it “heralds more operations” against the “American occupation”.
The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq, and 900 more in neighbouring Syria, on a mission to advise and assist local forces in fighting the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, which in 2014 seized swaths of territory in both countries.
In past years, Iranian-backed fighters regularly targeted US forces and the US embassy in Baghdad with rockets. Such attacks had abated under a truce in place since last year, and Iraq has had a period of relative calm.
But the war in Gaza has revived tensions. The country’s top Shia Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, last week condemned Israel and called on the world to stand up to the “terrible brutality” in besieged Gaza.
Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful armed faction with close ties to Iran, accused the US of supporting Israel in “killing innocent people” and said it should leave Iraq.
The increased tension has provoked warnings from officials across the lines of the risk of a spillover of the conflict to the wider region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned on Thursday of the potential for a regional crisis, saying efforts to pin blame on Iran were adding fuel to the fire.
The same day, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen labelled the risk of regional spillover from the Israel-Hamas war as “real”.
Underscoring the need to tighten sanctions on Iran, which she said was supplying Hamas, von der Leyen also said dialogue between Israel and its neighbours must continue.
“We have seen the Arab streets fill with rage all across the region. So the risk of a regional spillover is real,” she said.
“Iran, Hamas’s patron, only wants to fuel the fire of chaos. Russia, Iran’s wartime customer, is watching carefully. Russia and Hamas are alike,” the EU leader said.
Von der Leyen decried the “evil role that Iran plays in the background”, adding that it was “without question” that Iran supplied 93 percent of the weapons being used by Hamas.
She said it was vital to continue sanctioning Iran, as well as to widen sanctions and crackdown on sanctions evasion.
“That we have to step up is without question,” she said.
Earlier this week, the United Nations Middle East peace envoy warned the Security Council that the risk of expansion of the conflict between Israel and Hamas was “very real, and extremely dangerous”.
“I fear that we are at the brink of a deep and dangerous abyss that could change the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not of the Middle East as a whole,” said Tor Wennesland, addressing the 15-member body via video from Doha, Qatar.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies