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The US military failed to stop the enemy drone that killed three of its service members after mistaking it for an American drone that approached a base near Jordan’s border with Syria at the same time, a US official said.
The preliminary assessment was disclosed as the US considers its response to the attack that took place over the weekend, the first to kill US troops since the Israel-Hamas war that began on October 7 triggered a wave of assaults by Iranian-aligned groups against American forces in the region.
The US military was still trying to better understand the incident and how the one-way attack drone was able to cause so many casualties, officials said.
“We are trying to figure out how a one-way attack drone was able to evade our defences,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said.
Sunday’s attack, which US defence officials said also injured at least 40 service members, struck the Tower 22 outpost near Jordan’s border with Syria, which houses 350 US military personnel as part of the coalition against Isis. The drone struck early in the morning in an area where service members live and were sleeping, part of the reason the casualty rate was so high, officials said.
The US has about 2,500 troops in Iraq and about 900 in Syria, where they are deployed to help prevent a resurgence of the jihadist group.
President Joe Biden was “weighing the options before him”, John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, told reporters on Monday. The president met with his top advisers on Sunday and Monday to discuss Washington’s response to the attack.
US officials said they were still assessing who was responsible for the drone attack but saw links to Iraq-based, Iran-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah.
“It has the footprints of Kataib Hizbollah, but not making a final assessment on that — our teams here are continuing to do the analysis,” Singh said.
Biden had also blamed Iran-backed militias, but Kirby stressed the US did not seek to “escalate” conflict in the Middle East, nor did it seek “war” with Iran.
Kirby would not be drawn on the timing or nature of the US response, but said the administration was “fully cognisant of the fact that these groups backed by Tehran have just taken the lives of American troops”.
Iran has sought to distance itself from the deadly attack, as it and the US appear keen to avoid a further escalation. Iran’s foreign ministry labelled any accusation that it was involved in the US troops’ deaths as a “baseless” conspiracy by those “interested in dragging the US into a new conflict in the region to intensify the crisis”.
But Singh said on Monday that “Iran bears responsibility because it funds these groups in Iraq and Syria that launch attacks on our service members”.
The US has hit targets linked to Iranian-backed militias across the region following 165 attacks by militants on US troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since October, as well as more than 30 strikes on international shipping in the Red Sea.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington would “take all necessary actions to defend the US and our troops”. American forces in Syria and Iraq have come under repeated assault by a newly created group of Iran-backed Iraqi militias known as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which said it was retaliating against Washington’s backing for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.
Additional reporting by NajmehBozorgmehr in Tehran and Raya Jalabi