(Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed on Monday that the U.S. will take “all necessary actions” to defend its troops after a drone strike by Iranian-backed militants killed three U.S. soldiers and wounded dozens more.
Last Sunday’s attack was the first with casualties against US troops since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in October and marks a major escalation in the tensions that have gripped the Middle East.
“I want to begin with my outrage and sadness (at the deaths) of three brave American soldiers in Jordan and the others who were wounded,” Austin said at the Pentagon.
“The president and I will not tolerate attacks against US forces and will take all necessary actions to defend the US and our troops,” Austin added at the start of a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Pentagon.
The United States is trying to determine exactly how the nearly 350 soldiers at the base in Jordan, known as Tower 22, failed to stop the drone.
Two officials said that a US drone was approaching the base at about the same time as the attack drone arrived. One of the officials said that the attack drone was also flying low, factors that may have contributed to it escaping the base’s defenses.
US troops have been attacked more than 150 times in Iraq, Syria and Jordan and also on warships in the Red Sea, where Houthi fighters from Yemen are firing drones and missiles at them.
The attacks are increasing political pressure on President Joe Biden to strike a blow directly against Iran, which he is reluctant to do for fear of triggering a wider war.
Biden met with Austin and other members of his national security team in the White House Situation Room on Monday morning to discuss the latest developments related to the attack, the White House said.
The president’s options could range from attacking Iranian forces abroad or even inside Iran, or opting for a more cautious retaliatory strike only against the Iranian-backed militants who were responsible, experts say.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Biden was weighing his response options. “We’re not looking for a war with Iran,” he said.
At least 34 people were injured in the attack in Jordan, but that number is expected to change as more people seek care. Eight people have been evacuated from Jordan to receive more intensive care, but are in a stable condition.
The attack and any possible US response are likely to fuel fears of a wider conflict in the Middle East, where war broke out in Gaza after the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people.
Israel’s subsequent offensive against Gaza killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to the local Health Ministry.
The US has already retaliated in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in response to previous attacks by Iranian-backed groups.