WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden on Tuesday indicated he had decided how to respond after the killing of three American service members Sunday in a drone attack in Jordan that his administration has pinned on Iran-backed militia groups, saying he does not want to expand the war in the Middle East but demurring on specifics.
U.S. officials said they are still determining which of several Iran-backed groups was responsible for the first killing of American troops in a wave of attacks against U.S. forces in the region since the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on Israel. Biden plans to attend the dignified transfer to mark the fallen troops' return to American soil on Friday and answered in the affirmative when asked by reporters if he'd decided on a response, as he indicated he was aiming to prevent further escalation.
"I don't think we need a wider war in the Middle East," Biden said at the White House before departing for a fundraising trip to Florida. "That's not what I'm looking for."
It was not immediately clear whether Biden meant he had decided on a specific retaliatory plan. A U.S. official told The Associated Press that the Pentagon is still assessing options to respond to the attack in Jordan.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters traveling with Biden aboard Air Force One that he would not preview the U.S. response, but indicated it would come in phases.
"It's very possible that what you'll see is a tiered approach here, not just a single action, but potentially multiple actions over a period of time," he said.
Meanwhile, the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah, one of several groups eyed by U.S. officials, announced Tuesday in a statement "the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces in order to prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government."
The attacks on U.S. forces by Iraqi militias over the past four months have placed the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in an awkward position. Sudani was brought to power by Iranian-allied factions but has also attempted to stay in Washington's good graces and has condemned the attacks on U.S. forces serving in Iraq as part of an international commission to fight the Islamic State. Iraqi and U.S. officials on Saturday opened talks aimed at winding down the commission's presence.
Kirby said that Biden spoke with the soldiers' families Tuesday morning and extended his condolences, pledging full assistance to the families as they grieve.
In separate calls with the families, Biden also gauged their feelings about his attendance at Friday's dignified transfer of the fallen service members' remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Friday, and "all of them supported his presence there," Kirby said.
"He was grateful for their time. He expressed to them how proud we all are of their service," Kirby said of Biden's calls with the families. "How we mourn and feel sorrow over their loss."
Kirby added: "The president will be going to the dignified transfer on Friday."
The solemn ceremony marks the return of fallen service members to American soil as they journey to their final resting place, with silent honor guards carrying flag-draped transfer cases holding the remains from transport aircraft to military vehicles.
The Pentagon identified those killed in the attack as Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, 46, of Carrollton, Georgia; Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, of Waycross, Georgia; and Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett, 23, of Savannah, Georgia. The Army Reserve announced on Tuesday that it had posthumously promoted Sanders and Moffett to the rank of sergeant.
There have been a total of 166 attacks on U.S. military installations since Oct. 18, including 67 in Iraq, 98 in Syria and now one in Jordan, a U.S. military official said. On Tuesday, Al-Asad Air Base in Western Iraq was targeted again by a single rocket, but there was no damage and no injuries in that attack, a U.S. military official said. The three soldiers killed in the Jordan strike were the first U.S. military fatalities in the Middle East since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out. One contractor has also died as the result of a heart attack after a strike on Al-Asad in December.
In 2021, Biden attended the dignified transfer of the remains of 13 troops killed in a suicide attack during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Separately, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany said it expected to receive 3 U.S. service members who were injured in the drone attack, including one listed in critical, but stable, condition. The Pentagon has said at least 40 troops were injured alongside the three killed in action.
Madhani reported from Jupiter, Fla. AP writers Lolita C. Baldor and Tara Copp in Washington and Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed.