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Iranian-linked militants strike Iraqi base housing U.S. troops

Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq in 2021. (Ayman Henna/AFP/Getty Images)
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Iranian-backed militants attacked an air base housing U.S. and Iraqi troops in western Iraq on Saturday, U.S. Central Command said — the latest incident targeting U.S. forces as tensions flare over Israel’s war in Gaza.

The militants fired rockets and ballistic missiles at Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq’s Anbar province around 6:30 p.m. local time, Centcom said in a statement. “Most” of the missiles were intercepted by the base’s air defense systems, the statement said, adding that some landed and at least one Iraqi service member was wounded.

U.S. personnel were being evaluated for traumatic brain injuries, according to Centcom, which did not respond to a request for comment on whether any U.S. troops were wounded.

The attack was claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition that includes militias backed by Iran. In a statement, the group said the strike was part of the broader resistance against the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, as well as a response to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

About 2,500 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq to help combat remnants of the Islamic State, and roughly 900 are operating in Syria, where they advise and assist the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The incident on Saturday comes amid an increase in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months, as the war has devastated much of Gaza, killing more than 25,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israel launched its onslaught after Hamas militants staged a brutal massacre on Israeli towns near the Gaza border, leaving about 1,200 people dead. The United States has offered unwavering support to Israel, providing weapons and ammunition for the fight and giving Tel Aviv diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

The war has fueled concerns of a wider regional conflict, with strikes and skirmishes taking place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — all of which are home to Iranian proxies that either operate freely or hold significant power.

Iranian strikes in Iraq stoke fears of further Middle East escalation

Earlier on Saturday, an explosion in Damascus, the Syrian capital, killed five Iranian military advisers, according to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose statement was carried by official media in Iran. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi later vowed to respond to Israel’s “cowardly terror act” in Syria, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

When asked about the strike in Syria, the Israeli military said it does not comment on foreign reports. Iranian state media reported that Tehran called the strike a “desperate attempt to spread instability” in the region and said it has the right to respond.

Video of the aftermath Saturday showed smoke rising above the city. Syrian state media said the blast struck a residential building in the western Damascus neighborhood of Mezzeh, which is home to diplomatic missions and aid agencies.

The attacks in Iraq could also destabilize the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, whose appointment in October 2022 coincided with a pause in attacks on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops. Iranian-backed militias had stepped up their strikes under the Trump administration, as tensions between Iran and the United States soared.

After U.S. forces conducted what the Pentagon called a “self-defense” strike in Baghdad on Jan. 4 targeting a leader of an Iranian-backed militia, Sudani’s office said it would take steps to evict U.S. troops, Reuters reported. However, a few days after the strike, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters he was “not aware of any plans” to withdraw American troops or “of any notifications by the Iraqi government to the Department of Defense.”

“We’re there at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Ryder told reporters at a briefing several days later.

McDaniel reported from Washington, Timsit from London, Loveluck from Jerusalem and Salim from Baghdad. Itay Stern in Tel Aviv, Kyle Melnick in Washington and Niha Masih in Seoul contributed to this report.