The White House said Monday the U.S. is planning a “very consequential” response to the drone attack that killed three American troops at a base in Jordan.
President Joe Biden is blaming Iranian-backed militants for the attack, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby telling CNN that Biden “will respond.” But there was no immediate indication of the scope or timing of an American assault.
Kirby said, however, the U.S. does not “seek a war with Iran. We're not looking for a wider conflict in the Middle East.”
The deaths in the Saturday night attack were believed to be the first from hostile fire during the nearly four-month-long war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza although American troops have come under fire numerous times throughout the Middle East.
Some congressional Republican critics have called on the Democratic president for a direct hit on Iran, but such a strike could quickly lead to a spread of warfare in the Middle East.
In addition to the deaths, another 34 U.S. troops were wounded in the attack on their living quarters in northeastern Jordan near the Syrian border, the U.S. Central Command reported. It was not immediately clear how the drone slipped through U.S. air defenses or where it was launched from.
Iran’s foreign ministry has denied responsibility. The official IRNA news agency quoted ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani as saying that the “Islamic Republic of Iran has no role in decisions by resistance groups on how they support the Palestinian nation or defend their people.”
The three service members were not immediately identified, pending notification of their relatives. Biden called them “patriots in the highest sense.”
“We will carry on their commitment to fight terrorism,” Biden said in a statement. “And have no doubt — we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing.”
Later Sunday, at a campaign event in South Carolina, Biden said, "We shall respond." He then asked for a moment of silence.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and other Iran-backed militants, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to The Washington Post.
An official with the group told the newspaper, “As we said before, if the U.S. keeps supporting Israel, there will [be] escalations. All the U.S. interests in the region are legitimate targets and we don’t care about U.S. threats to respond; we know the direction we are taking, and martyrdom is our prize.”
In a statement carried by the official Petra news agency Jordan "condemned the terrorist attack that targeted an outpost on the border with Syria, killing three U.S. soldiers" and injuring others "from the U.S. forces that are cooperating with Jordan in countering terrorism and securing the border.”
Jordanian government spokesperson Muhannad Mubaidin expressed condolences to the United States and said the attack "did not result in any casualties among officers of the Jordan Armed Forces.”
Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert in Middle East and North Africa political and security issues, spoke with VOA's Persian Service on Sunday.
"Now we have the death of three Americans and 25 injured and the Biden administration needs to hit the individuals responsible for this, it needs to hit facilities inside of Iran," Pregent told VOA. "This is the only way to get Iran to stop."
"I heard some information today from the Pentagon that this is Iran's attempt to bait us into a war with Iran," he said. "No, Tehran doesn't want a war with the United States. But Tehran wants to use its proxies to push the United States out of the Middle East.
"But now a red line has been crossed and the United States needs to respond," Pregent said.
The attack was one of a string of aerial assaults targeting U.S. troops stationed in the region amid the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. While the United States has not engaged in the fighting in the narrow territory along the Mediterranean Sea, it has staunchly supported the Israeli effort and rebuffed the demands from some world leaders for an immediate cease-fire.
U.S. officials said, however, they are close to reaching an agreement for a two-month halt in the fighting and the release of the remaining 100 or so hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. The initial Hamas attack on Israel in October killed about 1,200 people, while Gaza officials say Israel’s counteroffensive has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.
In his statement, Biden said, “Today, America’s heart is heavy. Last night, three U.S. service members were killed — and many wounded — during an unmanned aerial drone attack on our forces stationed in northeast Jordan near the Syria border.”
A U.S. Defense Department official said some of the wounded sustained brain injuries that required medical evacuations to hospitals.
VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this story. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.