Widening Middle East crisis: Officials propose 6-week ceasefire and hostage-taking swap

Air defenses on Monday failed to prevent an attack on a US military outpost in Jordan on Sunday.

The enemy drone was mistaken for a U.S. surveillance drone returning to a remote resupply base, and air defenses were not immediately engaged, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss initial findings on the main cause of the episode. Two other drones that hit other nearby locations in southeastern Syria were shot down, they added.

Formerly The Wall Street Journal reported The drone mix-up is at the center of an investigation by the Army's Central Command into the deadly attack, which has now promised retaliation from President Biden, raised doubts about U.S. military security in the Middle East and raised new questions over the administration's efforts to prevent attacks by Iran-backed militias against merchant ships, warships and military bases in the region.

Three U.S. Army reservists were killed in Sunday's attack, the first U.S. military deaths from hostile fire in the escalating tensions since Israel's war with Hamas. The Pentagon on Monday raised the number of injured to at least 40, warning that the list would likely rise as more troops came forward with signs of brain injuries from the blast.

Biden administration officials blamed the attack on a drone launched from Iraq by pro-Iranian militias, and suspicion in the Pentagon immediately fell on Hezbollah, an Iran-aligned group in Iraq. “It definitely has the hallmarks of Hezbollah,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters, noting that intelligence analysts were still assessing the strike.

Sergeant William Jerome Rivers, 46, of Carrollton, Ga., left, Spec. Savannah, Ga., and Spec. Kennedy Lawton Sanders, 24, in photos released Monday by the U.S. Army Reserve Command.debt…US Army, via Reuters

The Pentagon on Monday identified the dead soldiers as Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, 46, of Carrollton, Ga. specification. Kennedy Lawton Sanders, 24, of Waycross, Ga.; and specification. Briona Alexandria Moffett, 23, of Savannah, Ga. All three were assigned to the 718th Engineer Company, 926th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Regiment, an Army Reserve unit at Fort Moore, Ga.

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The drone strike on an outpost in northeastern Jordan near its borders with Syria and Iraq, known as Tower 22, added to the growing hostilities since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and Gaza.

A military inquiry is underway to find out what went wrong. Pentagon officials said the base's air defenses were functioning properly early Sunday morning. Weather was not a factor.

One theory that military officials are investigating is that the fighters studied the patterns of American drones and deliberately positioned their attack drone near a returning American drone to make it harder to detect. Militia planners could have used Google Earth images of the site to guide an explosives-laden drone to the center of a mass target, such as a residential complex.

Mr. Biden has vowed to retaliate and met with his senior national security aides for a second day on Monday to discuss possible targets in Syria, Iraq and Iran. A direct attack on Iran is unlikely, although the U.S. military has drawn up plans to attack Iranian military advisers and trainers in Iraq and Syria if U.S. troops are killed by pro-Iranian militias in the Middle East, senior U.S. officials said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, on his first day back at the Pentagon after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer last month, condemned the attacks and vowed revenge.

Before meeting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Mr. Austin said, “I begin with my outrage and sadness at the deaths and injuries of three brave U.S. troops in Jordan. “The president and I will not tolerate attacks on U.S. forces, and we will take all necessary steps to protect America and our troops.”

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The drone strike in Jordan underscored that pro-Iranian militias — whether in Iran or Syria, or the Houthis in Yemen — were capable of inflicting severe consequences on U.S. forces, despite the U.S. military's efforts to weaken U.S. troops and avoid being drawn into a wider conflict. Maybe with Iran.

US troops in Iraq and Syria, now Jordan, have come under attack at least 165 times since October — 66 in Iraq, 98 in Syria and Sunday's attack in Jordan — the Pentagon said Monday. More than 80 service members suffered injuries, including brain trauma, before the latest salvo.

“We know that Iran supports these groups,” National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said Monday. “We know they're providing them with resources, we know they're training them. We know they're certainly not encouraging these attacks.

But Mr. Kirby added, “The extent to which they order and operate is something that intelligence analysts look at.”

Pressed repeatedly about when and how the United States would respond at a briefing with reporters on Monday, Mr. Kirby and Ms. Singh declined to comment on specific options. While blaming the attack for increasing tensions, they stressed that the administration was trying to avoid a wider war in the region.

“We don't expect a war with Iran,” Mr. Kirby said. “But the attacks must stop.”

US Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said Monday that he would not telegraph a U.S. response, but that such a move “could be multi-stage, phased — sustained over time.”

Mr. Blinken added: “It's an incredibly volatile time in the Middle East. I would argue that we haven't seen the dangerous situation that we're facing now across the region since at least 1973.

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For its part, Iran on Monday denied any link to the attack and blamed Washington for stoking tensions in the region.

About 350 Army and Air Force personnel are stationed at the Tower 22 border outpost. It serves as a logistics and resupply center for the nearby Al Danf garrison in southeastern Syria, where U.S. troops are working with local Syrian partners to fight the remnants of the Islamic State.

A one-way attack drone struck near the outpost's residence, causing injuries ranging from minor cuts to brain trauma, a US military official said. Eight American service members were sent to Iraq for medical care, and three of them are expected to be sent to Germany for more advanced treatment, Ms. Singh said.

Soldiers and airmen lived in container homes, aluminum boxes slightly larger than a commercial shipping container, Ms. Singh said. They have linoleum floors and beds or couches, and can be easily transported in trucks.

“What's different about this attack is where it landed,” Ms Singh said. “It was early in the morning, so people were actually in their beds when the drone hit.”

Michael Crowley Contributed report.

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