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Updated Dec 26, 2023, 10:51am EST
securityMiddle East
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Semafor Signals

Middle East conflict expands further with US strikes in Iraq

Insights from The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, and Axios

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REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
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The News

The U.S. hit three targets in Iraq in response to attacks on an American air base by what it said were Iran-backed militia. U.S. Central Command said the strikes likely killed members of Kataib Hezbollah. The Iraqi militia group has claimed many of the more than 100 attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack sparked tensions across the Middle East.

Iraqi officials denounced the attacks as a hostile act that violated the country’s sovereignty, and said that civilians were injured in the strikes.

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The latest round of tit-for-tat strikes comes at a precarious moment. Houthi attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea, an Israeli air strike on an Iranian officer in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to intensify attacks on Gaza, and simmering tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border could all escalate the conflict further.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Can the U.S. deter Iraqi and Syrian militia groups?

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Sources:  
The Washington Post, The Hill, Chicago Tribune

So far, the Biden administration’s strategy has been to respond cautiously to attacks on U.S. bases, seeking to avoid escalation to the frustration of some Pentagon officials and Republicans. Iranian-backed groups “believe they can try to kill Americans with impunity,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, while Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley said “you’ve got to punch them hard.” By contrast, some analysts have warned that establishing deterrence over non-state militia groups may be all but impossible, and argued that the U.S. should send its troops in Iraq and Syria home.

Fears grow of a wider war

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Sources:  
The Guardian, Islamic Republic News Agency

“We are in a multi-front war and are coming under attack from seven theaters: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Judea and Samaria (West Bank), Iraq, Yemen and Iran,” Israel’s defense minister said on Tuesday. While he said that Israel has taken action in six of these theaters, the most likely source of an all-out war is Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where exchanges of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah have escalated in recent days. But following the death of a high-ranking Iranian officer in an Israeli airstrike in Syria, Tehran has also vowed to make Israel pay.

Israel cagey on transitioning to next stage of the conflict

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Sources:  
The Times of Israel, Axios, The Washington Post

In a rare visit to Gaza on Monday, Netanyahu vowed to expand the war in Gaza and reiterated his ambition to keep fighting until Hamas is destroyed. But behind closed doors, Israel looks increasingly willing to discuss the future of the conflict: A top Israeli official is expected to meet with U.S. officials today to discuss plans to scale down the war to a low-intensity operation by the end of January.The discrepancy between Israel’s public insistence that the war will last months more and its private willingness to discuss next steps may be “to keep Hamas off guard,” a Washington Post columnist wrote.

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