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US troops attacked in Iraq, Syria and on alert for more strikes

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By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON () -U.S. troops have been repeatedly attacked in Iraq and Syria in recent days, U.S. officials said on Thursday, as Washington is on heightened alert for activity by Iran-backed groups with regional tensions soaring during the Israel-Hamas war.

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 U.S. forces since the conflict in Israel broke out on Oct. 7 when Palestinian militants from Hamas attacked southern Israel. On Wednesday, a drone hit U.S. forces in Syria resulting in minor injuries, while another one was brought down.

During a false alarm at Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, a civilian contractor died from a cardiac arrest.

Earlier this week, U.S. forces thwarted multiple drones targeting troops in Iraq. On Thursday, drones and rockets targeted the Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts U.S. and other international forces in western Iraq, and multiple blasts were heard inside the base.

Rockets hit another military base hosting U.S. forces near Baghdad’s international airport, Iraqi police said on Thursday, 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 U.S. and coalition forces against any threat,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters on Thursday.

“Any response, should one occur, will come at a time in a manner of our choosing,” Ryder said.

A U.S. Navy warship traveling near Yemen on Thursday intercepted missiles and several drones that were launched by what Ryder said was the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, though it appeared that the projectiles were potentially heading in the direction of Israel.

LINK TO ISRAEL-HAMAS CONFLICT?

Israel has called up a record 360,000 reservists and has been bombarding the Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip nonstop following Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault, which killed about 1,400 people, mostly civilians.

At least 3,785 Palestinians have been killed and 12,493 wounded in Israeli strikes on Gaza, the health ministry in Gaza said.

But Ryder said 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.

The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq, and 900 more in neighboring Syria, on a mission to advise and assist local forces in combating Islamic State, which in 2014 seized swathes of territory in both countries.

In Iraq, tension over the war in Gaza had already been high. Its top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 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 United States of supporting Israel in “killing innocent people” and said it should leave Iraq.

In past years, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq regularly targeted U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. 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.

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