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The killing of U.S. troops in Jordan raises specter of a wider war in the Middle East

A satellite view of the U.S. military outpost known as Tower 22, in Rukban, Rwaished District, Jordan, in October last year.
Planet Labs via Reuters
A satellite view of the U.S. military outpost known as Tower 22, in Rukban, Rwaished District, Jordan, in October last year.

Questions about the possibility of a low-level regional war in the Middle East are rising after attacks there have escalated in the past 24 hours.

On Sunday, an aerial drone strike killed three United States service membersand injured at least 34 others. The strike happened at a support base known as Tower 22 in northeast Jordan near the Syrian border and likely hit a barracks.

"We had a tough day last night in the Middle East. We lost three brave souls," President Biden said on Monday. "And we shall respond."

This is the first fatal attack on U.S. forces in the Middle East since the war in Gaza broke out following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that left some 1,200 people dead.

U.S. considers response to attack on base in Jordan

An Iran-backed umbrella group of militias called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq said it was behind the attack, but Iran denied involvement. The group called it revenge for America's military presence in the region and the Palestinian deaths in Gaza. More than 26,000 people have been killed since the beginning of Israel's war on Hamas, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

There have been about 160 attacks on U.S. bases in the region since the Gaza war broke out, according to the Pentagon.

"There will be a response" to Sunday's attack, John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Monday, and it will be "calibrated to hopefully have a better effect on the decision-making of these groups."

"We're going to take the right time to make the appropriate response decisions in the wake of this attack," he said. "The president has taken this very seriously."

President Biden met on Monday with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and others, including his Middle East envoy Brett McGurk, to discuss the growing threats.

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Other strikes in Syria and the Gulf of Aden

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reportedthat the Syrian military said that Israeli strikes outside the capital Damascus on Monday killed and wounded several people.

Syrian state media said that among the dead were "a number of Iranian advisers," Reuters reported. Israel declined to comment on the strikes.

The AP also reportedon Monday that Yemen's Houthi rebels said they attacked a U.S. Navy mobile base in the Gulf of Aden. The claim was denied by the U.S.

The Iranian-backed Houthis have been attacking international cargo ships in the Red Sea with drones and missiles since November. They have said it is a reaction to Israel's war in Gaza. The U.S has responded with its own strikes.

Kirby described Sunday's attack in Jordan as "escalatory" but insisted that the U.S. was not, however, talking about the latest spike in violence as a regional war.

"We do not want to see a wider conflict," Kirby said. "In fact, everything the president has done since the seventh of October has really been designed to try to de-escalate, to try to prevent a wider conflict. ... We are not looking for a war with Iran."

Nevertheless, an expert on the region told NPR Monday that the U.S. already appears to be swept up in a low-grade war.

"There have been some backchannel communications between Washington and Tehran to say they don't want the war that has been playing out since Oct. 7 between Israel and Gaza to expand," Robin Wright, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, told Morning Edition's Inskeep.

"But frankly, I think we've crossed that threshold now," she said. "The danger is that you see the Americans going in to try to prevent a wider war, to contain the violence, and instead only providing more targets."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.