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After Jordan attack, White House says it doesn't seek war, but vows to respond

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Pentagon today released the names of the three American Army reservists killed over the weekend by a suicide drone. It slammed into their sleeping quarters at a remote desert base in Jordan. The dead are Sgt. William Rivers, who was 46, Spc. Kennedy Sanders, age 24, and Spc. Breonna Moffett, 23. More than 40 other U.S. troops were wounded, many with concussions and a few with more serious injuries. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about it. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello there.

MCCAMMON: So what more do we know about how this might have happened? And aren't there defenses against these kinds of attacks?

BOWMAN: Well, it appears the attack drones somehow evaded defenses. That's what the Pentagon said today. And there's an investigation, of course. You know, these - there are sophisticated defense systems that can track and shoot down a drone out of the sky. We see that often at these bases in Iraq and Syria and also Jordan. And I've seen these defenses also in Afghanistan. But we're told in this case, those operating the air defenses were somehow confused, didn't realize this was an enemy drone because there were U.S. drones operating in the area. This was first reported by The Wall Street Journal today. Again, this is a working assumption. But again, there's an investigation. And I was talking with a retired senior officer with a lot of experience in the Middle East, and he told me he's never seen anything like this before.

MCCAMMON: So what do we know about the type of drone or where it might have come from? Who's responsible?

BOWMAN: Well, officials are saying it came from an umbrella group of Iranian-backed militias. It's called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. And the group claimed responsibility in a statement posted to Telegram. The Pentagon is still trying to determine the type of drone and where it came from. Usually, they're launched from Iraq, but again, they're still looking into that.

MCCAMMON: President Biden has promised a response to this attack. What might that look like, Tom? What do we know about that?

BOWMAN: Well, we know what it won't look like. Administration officials have said they don't want to widen the conflict, go after Iran, which, again, is training, supporting and supplying these groups. We heard that from spokesman John Kirby, who said, you know, we don't want to go to war with Iran. You'll likely see harder strikes on these Iranian militias in Iraq, maybe harder than what we've seen in the past, when U.S. strikes have hit militia leaders, facilities, missile sites. All we're hearing now from the administration is we'll respond at a time or place of our own choosing. Now, some Republicans want the U.S. to strike Iranian targets, also its leadership. Democrats aren't going that far, and saying there will likely be a military response from the U.S., but that should be done in a way to send a message to Iran, not airstrikes. Here's Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

SETH MOULTON: One of the things the administration is looking at is, how do you send a message not just to these militia groups, but to their Iranian backers? We've got to stop this behavior, but do it in a way that doesn't empower the Iranian hard-liners who actually want to start a wider region of war that drags in the United States.

BOWMAN: A wider regional war - that's what the U.S. wants to avoid. The U.S. hopes Israel will wrap up its war in Gaza so it can move on to some kind of a future Palestinian state, hopefully calm the region. But at this point, Sarah, that is just hope. The violence is only widening, and not only with these Iranian-supported militias in Iraq and Syria, but, of course, the Houthi militias in Yemen, another Iranian-supported group that's targeting U.S. warships in the Red Sea and also international shipping. This is not going to end anytime soon, it seems.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Tom Bowman reporting. Thanks so much for your time, Tom.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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