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Middle East Entering Most Perilous Phase in Half a Century

Biden administration vows to retaliate but officials say the US is not seeking a war with Iran

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, which escalated after a drone strike killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan, appears to be the region’s ’most dangerous’ period in about 50 years.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, the top U.S. diplomat said: “This is an incredibly volatile time in the Middle East. We’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region since at least 1973, and arguably even before that,” according to a State Department transcript of a press conference he held with NATO’s secretary-general. He was referring to the Yom Kippur War of that year, fought by Israel against Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, which lasted about two weeks.

“And that is the environment in which we’re operating, and of course that was triggered by the horrific attacks of October 7th by Hamas against innocent men, women, and children,” Mr. Blinken added.

The recent escalation in tensions occurred after the terrorist group Hamas launched several attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, triggering a counter-response from Israel. Multiple groups believed to be backed by Iran, including the Houthis in Yemen and various organizations in Iraq and Syria, have targeted U.S. forces using drones and missiles.

On Saturday, an Iraqi organization, reportedly backed by Iran, killed three American soldiers stationed at a small outpost in Jordan, according to U.S. officials. A statement issued by the White House on Sunday vowed that the U.S. military would respond to the incident.

(Left) Sgt. William Jerome Rivers. (Center) Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders. (Right) Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett. (U.S. Army and Shawn Sanders via AP)
(Left) Sgt. William Jerome Rivers. (Center) Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders. (Right) Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett. (U.S. Army and Shawn Sanders via AP)
The Pentagon identified the soldiers killed in the attack as Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, 46, from Carrollton, Georgia; Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, from Waycross, Georgia; and Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett, 23, from Savannah, Georgia.

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The three U.S. Army Reserve soldiers were assigned to the 718th Engineer Company, the 926th Engineer Battalion, and the 926th Engineer Brigade, based in Fort Moore, Georgia.

The Pentagon reported that over 40 troops were injured in the attack, suffering mostly from cuts, bruises, brain injuries, and similar wounds. Eight were medically evacuated, with three heading to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The other five, who suffered “minor traumatic brain injuries,” are expected to return to duty, according to officials..

“I am outraged and deeply saddened by the deaths of three of our U.S. service members and the wounding of other American troops in an attack last night against U.S. and coalition forces, who were deployed to a site in northeastern Jordan near the Syrian border to work for the lasting defeat of ISIS,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III said in a statement this week. “These brave Americans and their families are in my prayers, and the entire Department of Defense mourns their loss.”

Pentagon officials said U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Department of Defense are investigating how the attack happened. According to a Pentagon release, officials have not determined who was behind the incident.

However, a spokeswoman, Sabrina Singh, said that they believe it’s from an Iran-backed proxy group and has “the footprints of Kataib Hezbollah,” a group that operates in Iraq and Syria. “We know that Iran is behind it. And certainly, as we’ve said before … Iran continues to arm and equip these groups to launch these attacks, and we will certainly hold them responsible,” she added.

The White House said Monday that it is not seeking war with Iran, even as the administration vows retaliatory action. Biden administration officials have indicated that Tehran was likely behind the strike, a claim that an Iranian foreign ministry official denied this week.

A military base known as Tower 22 in Jordan, on Jan. 29, 2024. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)
A military base known as Tower 22 in Jordan, on Jan. 29, 2024. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

“There’s no easy answer here,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby regarding the drone strike and potential U.S. response. “And that’s why the president is meeting with his national security team weighing the options before him.”

However, Mr. Kirby also made it clear that U.S. patience has worn thin after over two months of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, and now Jordan, as well as on U.S. Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea, by Iranian proxies. The Houthis, recently re-designated as a terrorist group by the Biden administration, along with Kataib Hezbollah, have attacked various U.S. and other commercial assets in the Middle East.

The Houthis have attempted to capture several commercial vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since the October conflict began, claiming the attacks are meant to thwart assistance being delivered to Israel. The Yemeni group also declared solidarity with Hamas, while U.S. officials have said the group is targeting vessels that have nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas war.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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