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Graham warns of 'aggressive' response to Iran-backed rocket attack that killed US troops

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell, top GOP senators throw support behind surveillance deal as deadline looms Congress pours cold water on Trump’s payroll tax cut Kennedy backs online child sexual exploitation bill, proposes back up measure MORE (R-S.C.) warned Thursday of an “aggressive” response to a rocket strike in Iraq that killed two U.S. service members that officials are blaming on an Iran-backed militia.

“I think the president’s going to be very aggressive,” said Graham, a top GOP defense voice and close ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill’s Morning Report – Trump takes unexpected step to stem coronavirus Democrats start hinting Sanders should drop out Coronavirus disrupts presidential campaigns MORE’s. “At the time of our choosing, we should hit back.”

Asked if he meant retaliation against the militia or Iran itself, Graham said, “the people who actually launched the rockets.”

“Put Iran on notice that we’re going to hold them accountable in the future for this,” Graham added.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischGOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Senators condemn UN ‘blacklisting’ of US companies in Israeli settlements MORE (R-Idaho) also warned that “if I was the Iran proxy group, I would not sleep well tonight.”

On Wednesday night, U.S. military officials said 18 Katyusha rockets hit Camp Taji, a base north of Baghdad. The attack killed three — the two Americans and a British service member — and wounded 12. Iraqi forces found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from Camp Taji, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq added.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon halts service member travel to countries most affected by coronavirus for 60 days Pentagon pulls troops as Arctic military exercises cut short over coronavirus Overnight Defense: Esper postpones trip to help with coronavirus response | Pentagon curtails exercise in Africa over outbreak | Afghanistan to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners MORE attributed the attack to Iranian-backed Shia militia groups and said that “all options are on the table” to respond. 

“Let me be clear, the United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests or our allies,” Esper said.

The attack Wednesday had echoes of a similar rocket strike in December that set off an escalatory cycle that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war.

In December, U.S. officials blamed the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack that struck a base near Kirkuk, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. service members.

The confrontation culminated with a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, followed by an Iranian missile attack on bases in Iraq that gave more than 100 U.S. troops brain injuries.

Responding to Wednesday’s rocket attack, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeElbow bumps, Spock salutes: How Congress is dealing with coronavirus Bipartisan senators say Pentagon’s effort to improve military housing falls short Lobbying World MORE (R-Okla.) said the United States is “obviously” going to exact “reprisal,” though he wouldn’t specify what form he expects that to take.

U.S. officials have touted the Soleimani strike as having “reestablished deterrence” against Iran.

Democrats, who were skeptical of that argument to begin with, are pointing to Wednesday night’s attack as belying the deterrence line.

“Clearly we didn’t restore deterrence,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyUS paints murky picture of Russian disinformation on coronavirus GOP chairman cancels Hunter Biden-related subpoena vote Senate Democrat calls for investigation of agencies complying with Hunter Biden requests MORE (D-Conn.) said. “That was a lie. The Iranians are still shooting at us.”

Murphy the United States should “start talking to the Iranians” after Wednesday’s attack.

“It is so frightening that this escalatory continues and we have no mechanism to talk to the Iranians,” he said. “If we can’t begin a direct dialogue with the Iranians then there’s no hope of there being any permanent deescalation.”

He added that the Trump administration backed itself into a corner by drawing a red line against Americans being killed.

“If that red line exists, then obviously they would be contemplating retaliatory action,” he said. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. But I also don’t understand what the administration’s policy is if they choose not to respond.”

Last month, the Senate passed a resolution aimed at blocking Trump from taking military action against Iran in response to the Soleimani strike and subsequent spike in tensions. The House passed the measure, sending it to Trump’s desk on Wednesday as news was breaking about the latest rocket attack.

Trump has threatened to veto the measure, and neither chamber of Congress is expected to have the votes to override the veto.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHouse passes measure limiting Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran This week: Surveillance, travel ban fights play out amid growing coronavirus concerns US Marine contracts coronavirus in Virginia, the first case in the state MORE (D-Va.), who sponsored the resolution, said it is within Trump’s authority to protect U.S. troops from Iran-backed militia groups, noting his measure was specifically tailored to military action against the government of Iran.

“This attack yesterday is very troubling,” Kaine said. “The president has the power that he needs to take action against militia groups.”

Kaine also cast doubt on whether this strike would result in the same escalatory cycle as last time, citing internal pressures in Iran such as its massive coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m not expecting it to ramp up because I think the number of other pressures that Iran is under right now is going to have them focused inward,” Kaine said. “But there’s a countertheory that says that’s when authoritarian nations do something to take their attention off their internal woes.”

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