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U.S. strikes Iran-backed militias in Syria after attack on American base

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The past 36 hours have seen an escalating, tit-for-tat series of attacks in Syria - on one side, U.S. forces, and on the other, Iranian-backed militias. Today U.S. warplanes attacked a facility used by those militias in retaliation for a self-destructing drone that killed an American contractor and wounded five U.S. service members yesterday. For more, we're joined now by NPR's Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what is the latest at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, U.S. intelligence says that it was an Iranian drone that hit this American base in northeast Syria near the city of Hasakah. And besides killing that American contractor, two of the five soldiers had to be medically evacuated, though I'm told their injuries are not life-threatening. Now, U.S. says there have been 78 attacks in Syria by these Iranian-backed militias in the last several years, including through drones, rockets and mortars. And this is the first American death, they say. Now, two U.S. F-15 aircraft attacked the Iranian militia facility nearby. There are a number of deaths, according to reports, and the U.S. is still assessing the damage. And also the U.S. has recovered pieces of the drone and are now analyzing them. And, Ailsa, just today another attack - the U.S. says 10 rockets were fired at another American base in Syria. All the rockets fell short but wounded four Syrian civilians.

CHANG: Let me make sure I understand. You said that there have been about 78 attacks by these Iranian militias on U.S. forces in Syria in the past several years. I mean, we hear a lot about ISIS in Syria but not much about Iranian-backed militias, right? What are they even doing there?

BOWMAN: Well, of course, Iran is supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. And these militias have been targeting U.S. forces for some time. Of course, next door in Iraq, there are also these militia groups that occasionally target U.S. facilities there. And just yesterday the top officer for the region, American General Eric Kurilla, talked with lawmakers about Iran's military capabilities, including UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC KURILLA: Today, Iran possesses the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East with thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles. Iran also maintains the largest and most capable UAV force. Iran's vast and deeply resourced proxy forces spread instability throughout the region and threaten our regional partners.

CHANG: So even though it seems like the Islamic State or ISIS has been defeated, it sounds like both Iraq and Syria are still pretty dangerous places for American forces or contractors right now. Is that right?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. There are some 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria working with Kurdish forces and going after the remnants of ISIS and also facing these Iranian militias, as we were just talking about. I was in northeast Syria a couple of years back, and there are also members of the Russian mercenary group, the Wagner Group, who attacked an American base there. And next door in Iraq, U.S. forces are still partnering with Iraqi counterterrorism troops to, again, go after what remains of ISIS. Just last month, Ailsa, there were some three dozen raids - partnered raids with Iraqi forces and about 200 last year. So you're right. The Islamic State has not been defeated. But the U.S. will be fighting, it looks like, not only ISIS but Iranian militias for quite some time.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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