US forces killed five Iranian-backed extremists as they prepared to carry out a drone strike in Iraq, bringing the number of attacks against US forces in that country and Syria to 76 since mid-October.
Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters on Monday that US forces noticed the militants on Sunday starting to launch offensive drones, after which they fired a precision missile from a US drone to eliminate them.
"We felt it would be a threat to American forces and because we have the right to self-defense, we took action," she said.
Iranian-backed forces launched two multiple-missile attacks on US forces in eastern Syria over the weekend; in one, the Rumalin landing zone was targeted, and in the other forces in Shadadi. There were no casualties or infrastructure damage in the attacks.
"We believe Iran is ultimately responsible for attacks on ships passing near the Red Sea," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday.
"This is a question for the whole world," he added.
The latest violence in Iraq and Syria comes after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles at three merchant ships in the Red Sea on Sunday, in what could be a further escalation in a series of naval attacks in the Middle East linked to nearly the two-month war between Israel and Hamas.
"Houthi forces attacked multiple merchant vessels in the Red Sea," the US Department of Defense told VOA. "The USS Carney provided assistance in some circumstances and shot down Houthi drones moving in its general direction."
According to US Central Command, after the first ballistic missile hit the waters near the merchant ship M/V Unity Explorer, the USS Corney, a destroyer armed with guided missiles, responded and eliminated a drone that was headed in the direction of the two ships.
Less than an hour later, the Juniti Explorer was hit by a Hutu missile, causing minor damage. As the USS Korney responded to the ship's distress call, the Houthis fired another drone at the ships shot down by the Korney crew.
A few hours later, missiles launched from Yemen hit two more commercial ships, the "Number 9" and the "Sofi II", damaging both ships. While responding to the Sophie II's distress call, the USS Corney shot down another drone heading in its direction.
Singh said that the Pentagon assessed that Korney was not the target of any of the attacks, but when asked again by VOA, she admitted that this was an initial assessment and that the Pentagon had not ruled out the possibility that Korney was actually the target of the drones.
"It got close enough that the commander of the ship felt it was a threat and had to react and shoot that drone down," she said.
Singh added that the attacks were "very concerning" but declined to say how or if the US would respond. In 2016, the US launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory in retaliation for missiles fired at US Navy ships.
Houthi army spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Sari claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying rebels hit one vessel with a missile and another with a drone while in the Bab el-Mandeb strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
"The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from sailing through the Red Sea (and the Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip ceases," Sari said.
"The Yemeni armed forces renew the warning to all Israeli ships or those connected to the Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement."
Sari also identified the first vessel hit as the Unity Explorer, which is owned by a British firm in which Dan David Ungar, who lives in Israel, is one of the officers. A Hutt spokesman said the second hit was a Panamanian-flagged container ship called "Number 9", which is associated with "Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement".
Israeli media identified Ungar as the son of Israeli billionaire Abraham (Rami) Ungar.
For more than a month, Iran-backed militias have been carrying out drone and missile attacks on 2.500 US troops based in Iraq and 900 troops in Syria.