President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday he has made a decision about the US response to the drone strike that killed three US service members and injured dozens in Jordan.
Asked by CNN’s Arlette Saenz whether he has decided how to respond, Biden said, “Yes,” but declined to provide further details.
The Sunday attack on the small outpost was the first time American troops have been killed by enemy fire in the Middle East since the beginning of the Gaza war. Administration officials have feared that outcome since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel because it would require a strong American response, which the administration has worried could lead to a broader conflict.
The president reiterated that he is hoping to deter a broader conflict in the Middle East, saying on Tuesday, as he prepared to depart for a fundraising swing in south Florida, “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
The killed servicemembers were identified Monday as Sgt. William Rivers, 46, of Carrollton, Georgia; Sgt. Kennedy Sanders, 24, of Waycross, Georgia; and Sgt. Breonna Moffett, 23, of Savannah, Georgia. Sanders and Moffett were posthumously promoted from the rank of specialist to sergeant, the Army Reserve said.
Biden spoke Tuesday with the families of the three soldiers and will attend a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base on Friday, officials said. The president voiced gratitude for the three service members and told their families “how proud we all are of their service, how we mourn and feel this feel sorrow over their loss,” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Biden “made sure that those families knew that not only was that service and sacrifice going to be honored and respected but that they will continue to get the support that they need,” Kirby said.
In the phone call, Biden gauged the families’ feelings about his attendance at the dignified transfer and all of them supported his presence at the solemn event, Kirby said.
Along with the three US Army soldiers who were killed, more than 40 other service members were injured in the drone attack. A US official previously told CNN that the drone appeared to have followed an American drone onto the base, leading to uncertainty about the drone’s origin and a potential delayed response.
Three of the injured servicemembers are expected to arrive at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Tuesday evening for further treatment. All three are reported to be stable, but one is in critical condition, Kirk Frady, a spokesperson for Medical Readiness Command, Europe, said. Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is the largest Defense Department hospital outside the United States.
The attack was the most serious of scores of strikes launched by Iran-backed militia groups on US forces in the Middle East since October 7. Along with those strikes, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have repeatedly attacked vessels in the Red Sea – a crucial international shipping lane.
Earlier this month, two Navy SEALs were swept into the ocean off the coast of Somalia while boarding a vessel in search of illicit Iranian weapons. The SEALs were declared dead on January 21.
In a sign of a possible effort to ramp down tensions, the most powerful Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, announced on Tuesday the suspension of its military operations against US forces in the region two days after the drone attack in Jordan.
“We are announcing the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces (US troops) - in order to prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government,” Kataib Hezbollah said in a statement. “We will continue to defend our people in Gaza in other ways, and we recommend to the brave Mujahideen of the Free Hezbollah Brigades to [carry out] passive defense (temporarily) if any hostile American action occurs towards them.”
All this comes as Israel continues its campaign inside Gaza, which has killed more than 25,000 people. Israel has also struck Hezbollah targets inside neighboring Lebanon - adding up to an extremely precarious and deadly situation across the Middle East.
The Biden administration has been criticized, primarily by Republicans, for not taking strong enough action against the Iran-backed groups for their attacks. In a statement on Sunday following the news of the three Americans killed, Sen. Lindsey Graham said the Biden administration’s “policy of deterrence against Iran has failed miserably,” and called on Biden to escalate by launching strikes against targets inside Iran.
Biden had warned in a statement shortly after the drone attack that the US will respond in a “time and manner of our choosing” as he weighs how to deter future attacks without escalating the conflict. US officials on Monday said that the American response was likely to be more powerful than previous US strikes in Iraq and Syria against Iranian interests, but they have suggested it is unlikely the US will strike within Iran.
Biden said he holds Iran responsible for the attack, which CNN has reported was carried out by suspected Iranian proxy forces. Tehran has denied responsibility for the attacks, calling allegations of Iranian involvement “baseless.”
“I do hold them responsible in the sense that they’re supplying the weapons to the people who did it,” he said.
Biden said, “We’ll see,” when asked whether the expected US response will deter future attacks.
CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Natasha Bertrand, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Aqeel Najim contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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