CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal

Flanked by Congressional Progressive Caucus members, CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on May 24, 2023.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House Progressives Warn Against Escalation in the Middle East

"We take seriously our constitutional responsibility over war, peace, and security and we remind the White House that Congress must be involved in and approve of the offensive use of military force."

As Israel wages a U.S.-backed war on the Gaza Strip widely decried as genocide and the United States reportedly plots strikes on Iranian personnel and facilities in Iraq and Syria, Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders on Thursday sounded the alarm about further escalation in the Middle East.

"Since October, we have seen a steady escalation between varied armed actors and U.S. forces throughout the Middle East," said CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Deputy Chair Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Whip Greg Casar (D-Texas), and Chair Emeritus and Peace and Security Task Force Chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif). "These rising tensions culminated in this past weekend's tragedy, where three U.S. service members were killed and dozens wounded in an Iraq-based militia strike on a U.S. base in Jordan."

"We mourn the loss of these soldiers, as well as the Navy SEALs who were lost earlier this month in a separate Red Sea operation," they continued. "Since October, 165 attacks have injured more than 120 U.S. service members across the region, and repeated U.S. retaliatory strikes in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have not deterred these armed groups."

"For years... extreme voices have been fixated on closing the door to diplomacy and drawing the United States into direct conflict with Iran."

U.S. strikes in Yemen—notably not authorized by Congress—have come in response to Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping to protest Israel's war on Gaza. While the Houthis have ties to Iran that U.S. officials often emphasize, as author and Yemen expert Helen Lackner highlighted on Democracy Now! Thursday: "The Houthis are an independent movement. The Houthis are not Iranian proxies. They are not Iranian servants. They don't do what the Iranians tell them to do. They make their own decisions."

American officials have blamed the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias including Kata'ib Hezbollah, for the Jordan attack. While the Iranian government has denied involvement in that strike and the Biden administration has admitted that there is no proof it was directed by Tehran, U.S. hawks have been calling for war with Iran this week.

Kata'ib Hezbollah's leader, Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi, said Tuesday that the group has launched attacks at its "own will, and without any interference from others," but will stop targeting American forces in Iraq to help pave the way for a U.S. withdrawal from the country over two decades after the 2003 invasion. Still, fears of a regional war remain heightened.

Jayapal, Omar, Casar, and Lee warned that the United States is now "facing the most serious threat of regional war" since then-U.S. President Donald Trump—now the GOP front-runner to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the November election—greenlighted the "reckless and unauthorized" assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani four years ago.

"So it comes as no surprise that congressional Republicans are now irresponsibly pushing direct military confrontation with Iran," the CPC leaders stressed. "For years, these extreme voices have been fixated on closing the door to diplomacy and drawing the United States into direct conflict with Iran."

"The American people have no interest in such a conflict, which would erode our nation's global standing and irreparably damage our national security," they asserted. "As the people's representatives in Congress, we take seriously our constitutional responsibility over war, peace, and security and we remind the White House that Congress must be involved in and approve of the offensive use of military force."

As Common Dreamsreported last week, polling shows a majority of Americans would hold the president responsible if gas prices go up as a result of war in the Middle East—including enough Democratic voters to potentially decide a close election—and half of Biden supporters think Israel, which claims to be targeting Hamas, is committing genocide against Palestinian civilians.

"Now is the time to take concrete actions to decrease tensions that threaten our service members," the CPC leaders argued. "At this dangerous and unpredictable moment, we call for a renewed focus on de-escalation, diplomacy, and on addressing the root causes that have inflamed the region and provoked attacks on U.S. personnel in recent months."

The CPC remarks—which echo a Tuesday statement from Lee, who is running for U.S. Senate against two other California Democrats in the House—came as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin claimed the administration wants to avoid a regional war.

Addressing reporters for the first time since a controversial set of hospitalizations, Austin said of the attack in Jordan:

The president will not tolerate attacks on American troops and neither will I. Our teammates were killed by radical militias backed by Iran and operating inside Syria and Iraq.

In the aftermath of the vile Hamas terrorist assault on Israel on October 7th, terrorist groups backed by Iran and funded by Iran have tried to create even more turmoil, including the Houthis attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

So this is a dangerous moment in the Middle East. We will continue to work to avoid a wider conflict in the region but we will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our interests, and our people. And we will respond when we choose, where we choose, and how we choose.

"We will have a multitiered response, and again, we have the ability to respond... a number of times depending on what the situation is," the Pentagon chief added, while also stating that "we're not at war with Iran."

Citing unnamed officials, CBS Newsreported Thursday that in response to recent drone and rocket attacks on U.S. forces in the region, "plans have been approved for a series of strikes over a number of days against targets—including Iranian personnel and facilities—inside Iraq and Syria," and "weather will be a major factor in the timing."

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