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US carries out air strikes in Syria targeting Iranian-backed militia structures

FILE - This March 27, 2008 file photo shows the Pentagon in Washington. In a first for the Pentagon's push to develop defenses against intercontinental-range ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States, a missile interceptor launched from a U.S. Navy ship at sea hit and destroyed a mock ICBM in flight on Tuesday, officials said. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

(CNN) — The U.S. military struck a site in Syria on Thursday used by two Iranian-backed militia groups following rocket attacks on American forces in the region in the past two weeks, according to a U.S. official.

The strikes mark the military’s first known action under President Joe Biden. The site was not specifically tied to the rocket attacks, but were believed to be used by Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in the region.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the strikes took place “at President Biden’s direction” and were authorized not just to respond to recent attacks against American and coalition forces, but to deal with “ongoing threats to those personnel.”

Kirby said that Biden conducted the strikes after consulting with U.S. allies, including coalition partners.

“Specifically the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian backed militant groups including Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al Shuhada,” Kirbry said. “The operation sends an unambiguous message; President Biden will act to protect American coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.”

The site is believed to be used as part of a weapons smuggling operation by the militias. The strikes were carried out to degrade the ability of the groups to carry out future attacks and to send a message about the recent attacks, the U.S. official said.

The decision to target the site in Syria was made from the “top down,” a defense official said, and was not because of a specific recommendation from the military.

The strikes come as Washington and Tehran position themselves for negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program, potentially complicating an already fragile process.

The United States had not definitively blamed any specific group for the rocket attacks or attributed them to any Iranian proxies in the region, but the administration had made it clear where they place the blame.

Earlier this week White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States holds Iran accountable for the actions of its proxies.

A Feb. 15 rocket attack on coalition forces near the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan killed a civilian contractor and injured four American contractors and a U.S. service member. At the time Psaki said Biden and the administration “reserve the right to respond in a manner and at a time of our choosing.”

“We will respond in a way that’s calculated on our timetable, and using a mix of tools, seen and unseen,” Psaki told reporters, a day after Biden spoke with Iraq’s Prime Minister, a discussion which focused largely on the rocket attacks. “What we will not do, and what we’ve seen in the past, is lash out and risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran by further destabilizing Iraq, and that is our priority,” Psaki added.

The U.S. strikes come as Washington and Tehran position themselves for negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program, potentially complicating an already fragile process.

The administration has made it clear where they place blame for the attacks, which took place amid heightened concern that Iran or its proxies would retaliate to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

“We have stated before that we will hold Iran responsible for the actions of its proxies that attack Americans,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday, noting that “many of these attacks have used Iranian made, Iranian supplied weapons.”

Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denied any ties to the Feb. 15 attack in Erbil and Iran has not claimed responsibility for any of the other strikes. “While these rumors are strongly rejected, the dubious attempt to attribute it to Iran is also strongly condemned,” Khatibzadeh said, according to a February 16 report by Iran’s state official news agency Mehr.

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