Pentagon chief on Iran-backed militias: 'They have a lot of capability, I have a lot more'

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday warned Iranian-backed militias that have attacked U.S. forces that a response is coming, and that the Pentagon has the power to respond strongly,

Austin said it was “time to take away even more capability than we’ve taken in the past” from groups that have fired on the U.S.

“We’ve not described what our response is going to be, but we look to hold the people that are responsible for this accountable,” Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. “And we also look to make sure that we continue to take away capability from them as we go.” 

He added: “They have a lot of capability, I have a lot more.” 

Austin, who spoke from the podium in the Pentagon briefing room for the first time in months, said the administration has planned a “multi-tiered response” to attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East. 

He stressed that the U.S. still seeks to avoid a wider conflict in the Middle East. But he added that Washington “will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our interests and our people.” 

The presentation by Austin followed his secret hospitalization in January for treatment of prostate cancer.

CBS News reported earlier Thursday that the administration had approved plans for a series of strikes over several days against targets inside Iraq and Syria, to include Iranian personnel and facilities. 

The strikes are in response to the three American troops killed and roughly 40 others injured in a Sunday drone strike on Tower 22 military base in Jordan near the Syrian border. The White House on Wednesday said it believes the Islamic Resistance in Iraq was responsible for the attack. 

Austin called the attack “egregious,” as it was on the sleeping area of the base.  

American troops have also come under fire from Iranian-backed groups more than 160 times since late October, after Israel launched a devastating offensive in Gaza in a bid to wipe out Hamas. More than 26,000 people have been killed in the fighting and Israeli airstrikes, a figure that includes civilians and Hamas fighters. A majority of the casualties have been women and children. 

Among the Iranian-proxy groups that have targeted U.S. forces are the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have attacked commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and various militias across Iraq and Syria including the Kataib Hezbollah. 

The latest such attack from the Houthis was Wednesday night, when the USS Carney shot down three Iranian drones and one antiship ballistic missile launched from Yemen, according to U.S. Central Command. 

Over the past several weeks the White House has launched numerous precision strikes targeting the Houthis and their assets, but the next U.S. response appears poised to be the largest one yet.  

“I think everyone recognizes the challenge associated with making sure that we hold the right people accountable, that we do everything necessary to protect our troops and that we manage things so that they don’t escalate,” Austin said. “There are ways to manage this so it doesn’t spiral out of control. And that’s been our focus throughout.” 

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