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Fighting increases between U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias


Last night the U.S. carried out airstrikes on militias in Iraq in response to an attack that wounded three U.S. service members hours before. This comes as there's been an uptick in fighting between Iran proxies and the U.S. and Israel since the start of the Gaza war. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been covering these developments from her base in Rome. Hey, Ruth.


SUMMERS: So what can you tell us about these latest attacks in Iraq?

SHERLOCK: Well, President Biden ordered these airstrikes against three locations the U.S. says are used by Iranian-backed groups in the country. And like you said, you know, these U.S. airstrikes are intended as a response for a drone attack yesterday on an airbase in northern Iraq that critically wounded one U.S. service member and injured two others. And the U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Iraq and about 900 in northern Syria. And the Pentagon says it's recorded dozens of attacks - well over 90 - on its forces in these two countries in recent weeks by Iranian-backed groups.

SUMMERS: And, Ruth, what is the Iraqi government saying about these airstrikes that the U.S. has conducted on its soil?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Iraqi prime minister's office came out with quite a harshly worded statement condemning the U.S. airstrikes. These strikes apparently killed one militiaman, but also wounded at least 18 other people, including, the Iraqi government says, some civilians and Iraqi police. And they called the strikes a clear hostile act and said they, quote, "undermine the bilateral relations" between Iraq and the U.S. The complexity here is that the Iraqi government is really struggling to balance the ties it has to both the U.S. and to Iran. And the Iraqi government is warning that these types of exchanges of fire between the U.S. and Iran are destabilizing for the country.

And, you know, Juana, it's not just happening in Iraq. We've got Houthi militias from Yemen that are linked to Iran firing on ships in the Red Sea. The U.S. is now leading a naval coalition to try to defend these ships. And then you have Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran, trading fire almost daily. And that's led to the evacuation of thousands of civilians on both sides of that Lebanese-Israel border.

SUMMERS: Is this something that could spiral out of control and lead to confrontation between the U.S. and Israel on one side against Iran?

SHERLOCK: Well, concern about that has really gone up since Iran says Israel killed a senior adviser in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the IRGC, in Syria this week. You know, Iranian state media have quoted both the president of Iran and the IRGC as saying that Israel will, quote, "pay the price" for his killing. For now, analysts seem to think that neither Israel nor the U.S. nor Iran really wants to see this spiral into a bigger conflict. So far, these attacks and responses have been relatively limited. But this is an extremely volatile situation, and it could easily spiral out of control.

SUMMERS: NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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