Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Tuesday pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on whether an attack by Iranian proxies resulting in the death of an American would warrant a counterattack, to which he had no clear response.
Iran-backed groups attacked U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria at least 24 times since Oct. 17, Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said on Monday following several attempts over the weekend. “Is it a red line for Iran to orchestrate an attack on our forces that crosses a red line in Syria or Iraq?” Graham asked Austin during a Tuesday Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. (RELATED: Iran-Backed Proxies Claim Attack On US Troops After Biden Warned Ayatollah To ‘Prepare’ For US Response)
The U.S. on Friday bombed two facilities in eastern Syria used by Iranian proxy militias and Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but so far the attempts on U.S. service members’ lives have not receded.
“Can we tell the Iranians today, in case they’re watching, that if an American is killed in Syria or Iraq, we’re coming for you?” Graham asked Austin about President Joe Biden’s emergency national security funding request.
“I think Iran should be held accountable for the activities of these Iranian—” Austin began to respond, but Graham cut him off.
The U.S. has about 2,500 troops in Iraq and an additional 900 in Syria tasked with assisting local partner militias in the ongoing campaign to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group, according to Reuters.
“Can we say publicly to the families of the service members in Iraq and Syria that we will hit Iran if they try to kill an American through their proxies?” Graham asked.
“What we have said and what we’ll continue to say is that we’re going to hold—”
“Well, I wish we would be more clear,” Graham said, interrupting Austin again.
The Pentagon’s response has largely centered on defensive measures, including surging air defense assets to bases throughout the Middle East threatened by Iran-backed groups.
Austin told Graham that if Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist group embedded in Lebanon to Israel’s north, launched a full-scale attack, that would constitute an escalation of the conflict.
“Whether or not we attack Iran because of a decision by Lebanese Hezbollah — of course that’s a presidential decision and would require an act of Congress…”
— Michael Knights (@Mikeknightsiraq) October 31, 2023
Twenty-one U.S. troops suffered minor injuries and have since returned to duty, the Pentagon said. The Pentagon has not said that the attacks killed any U.S. military personnel, but did acknowledged that one U.S. contractor suffered a heart attack during what turned out to be a false alarm while sheltering in place.
Reports of two more attacks surfaced on Tuesday, although they have yet to be confirmed. It’s also unclear whether the Pentagon’s count includes only projectiles that either made contact with a base or were on course to hit their target when intercepted by U.S. troops, or all attempts.
“Why are we not striking back more forcefully? Why are we not delivering a resounding message to stop those strikes on our bases and on our troops?” Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota later asked.
“We maintain the right to respond at the place and time of our choosing, and we’ve said that, and we’re serious about that,” Austin responded.
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